Private 61st Pennsylvania Infantry
United States Army
Pete Waldmeir / The Detroit News: June 1997
Pvt. Waldmeyer never owned slaves; he died in struggle to set them free
In a trip to Washington, D.C., this spring, I stopped at Arlington National Cemetery to spend a few quiet moments with my family's apology for slavery.
He's buried in plot No. 8917, high on the hill above the Tomb of the Unknowns and John F. Kennedy's eternal flame, a five-minute stroll from where former heavyweight champion Joe Louis and World War II's most decorated hero, Audie Murphy, rest in more splendid solitude.
The small headstone is weathered and gray and bears the simple inscription, "Wilhelm Waldmeyer, Pvt., Co. B, 61st Pa. Inf." That it does small justice to the sacrifice my great-grandfather made is immaterial.
Wilhelm long has been a special hero of mine because he came to the aid of his adopted nation in a cruel, bitter Civil War that he did nothing to precipitate and from which he stood to take nothing save discomfort, disease and, ultimately, death in 1864 at the ripe old age of 37.
I got to thinking about old Wilhelm when President Clinton considered, then abandoned for the time being, a plan to make a symbolic blanket national apology for slavery on behalf of white Americans to African Americans.
A Clinton adviser on race reportedly told his boss that any apology at this time might be considered artificial and even cynical because people would not understand its deeper meaning. Some day, the gentleman added sagely, it might make "moral sense."
Well, let me say that there are plenty of things to apologize about that have happened in this life, and slavery undoubtedly is one of them. If it makes Clinton or anyone else feel better, let them go ahead and apologize.
Just don't presume to speak for all of us because there are literally millions of Americans whose ancestors never owned slaves or had even a remote connection to slavery. And there are millions more who lost fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and other loved ones in the Union's four-year struggle to abolish slavery.
These people apologizing for racist bigots enslaving others 130 years ago makes about as much sense, say, as if they were expected to apologize for Adolph Hitler's genocide. Or the eruption of Mount St. Helens.
Pvt. Waldmeyer was 23 when he left his small Swiss village in 1850 to seek a better life in America.
There was no Statue of Liberty to greet immigrants then, and few jobs. He settled in Allegheny City, Pa., found work as a cooper and married my great-grandmother there in 1851.
When the South attacked Ft. Sumpter, S.C., in 1861, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers, and 33-year-old Wilhelm signed up and marched off.
Over the next four bloody years, the 61st Pennsylvania took more than 1,000 fatal casualties in battles at familiar places like Gettysburg and Wilderness and obscure outposts like Turkey Bend and Malvern Hill.
In all, the blue-jacketed Union forces lost more than 364,000 men - only 41,000 less than the number of Americans who died in World War II. Wilhelm, who had been wounded, died of fever six months before the South surrendered.
His extended family by now easily has numbered more than 100. Assuming other casualties had similar blood lines, there could be more than 36 million Americans who lost an ancestor in the war to end slavery.
Whatever the final count, their apologies have
long since turned to dust.