He was born in 1845 in an obscure village in western Pennsylvania. His given name was Daniel, but everyone called him Little Dan, even after Big Dan, his father, was killed in a farming accident just four years after his only son was born.
Big Dan’s death left a lot of responsibility on Little Dan’s small shoulders. He was in charge of taking care of the farm animals when he was barely old enough to take care of himself. He worked alongside his mother to learn how to plant, tend and harvest crops, and a kindly neighbor taught him how to mend fence. By the time he was 10, he was fully carrying a man-sized share of the chores around the farm.
For Little Dan, his mother and two younger sisters, it was all about survival. They were totally dependent upon each other for security, comfort and friendship, and they faced each day with a fierce familial unity forged through years of struggle and hardship.
Life was tough, but it also had its pleasures. As long as Little Dan and his family had each other, they figured they could handle just about anything else that would come their way.
As a teenager, Little Dan heard the whisperings of war with the South. He was also mildly aware of the reasons for the conflict, although his perspective was decidedly limited. When men in the area began marching off to enlist in President Abraham Lincoln’s army, he was attracted by the romantic notion of war and briefly considered enlisting himself to fight for flag and country. But his first loyalty was to his mother and sisters, and he figured his family needed him more than his country did.
That all changed in 1863 when General Robert E. Lee and his Southern troops launched a daring campaign in the North. Suddenly, the Civil War became a personal crisis and Little Dan felt compelled to take up arms to protect his home and family.
He enlisted on June 15, 1863.
Within two weeks his regiment was dispatched across the state to another obscure village named Gettysburg. Sometime during three horrifying days of violence and bloodshed, Little Dan died. At least, that’s what his mother always assumed. All she knew for sure was that she never heard from him again.
Later that year, President Lincoln was at Gettysburg to dedicate a portion of the battlefield “as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that (this) nation might endure.” He didn’t know Little Dan, but he clearly understood the significant role that is played by the common, everyday people who are willing to give their last full measure for their country.
“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground,” President Lincoln said at Gettysburg. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
It has ever been thus.
Throughout the history of the world, remarkable men and women have earned fame and glory as leaders and innovators in various fields of endeavor. And while I would be the last to begrudge them their place in history, especially on President’s Day, I can’t help but be drawn to the ordinary people who carried out the work of their visionary leaders.
I wonder about the Rough Riders — and, history records, the Buffalo Soldiers — who followed Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill. I think about the soldier who had such a firm hand on the rudder that George Washington was able to stand up in the boat as it crossed the Delaware. And I remember Little Dan and his family and thousands of others like them whose very personal sacrifices helped to make Lincoln, you know, Lincoln-esque.
The way I see it, we don’t just honor great leaders on President’s Day. We also honor those who had the good sense to follow.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com.