This weekend, I’m going to the Gray Cemetery to see The Stranger.
I want to see his gravesite one more time before the anti-Confederacy hysteria that has suddenly hit America erases him from history, much like the other remembrances being removed all over the country.
The Stranger’s grave is one of the best stories in Maine. You’d never know that about 100 yards from downtown Gray’s busiest intersection lies a grave marker whose back story illustrates how the human heart is capable of real forgiveness, real tolerance and real compassion.
It was 1862 and the Civil War was raging. Lt. Charles Colley, the son of a prominent Gray family that lived on Colley Hill, was killed during the Battle of Cedar Mountain while serving in the 10th Maine Regiment. Colley’s body, butchered by an overwhelming Confederate onslaught, was retrieved from the battlefield and shipped back to Gray to be buried by his family.
Right before the body was to be interred in Gray Cemetery, Colley’s mother, Sarah, wanted to see her brave boy one last time. When she and her husband, Amos, opened the casket however, they found the body of a Confederate soldier, not their Union Army son.
No one knew who the soldier was or how his body was mistaken for Colley’s. The man was ironically dressed in gray and sent to a town in Maine named Gray. The battlefields were strewn with thousands back then, and it’s probably a safe assumption bodies were frequently misidentified.
The Colley family, however, cared for that unidentified Confederate soldier like he was their own, knowing he, too, had parents who loved and missed their child. Despite his being a member of the Confederate Army, which was trying to kill their sons, Sarah Colley and a group of her friends known as the Ladies of Gray honored The Stranger by giving him a proper burial.
Their act was full of amazing love. They didn’t beat his body with bats or fists. They didn’t trample him beneath their wagons. They didn’t parade his lifeless body as part of a march against the Confederacy. They treated him with dignity.
Fast-forward 150 years to the recent demonstrations in Boston and Charlottesville by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and counter-demonstrators on the extreme left who sanction violence against extreme rightist groups. There is no love, no call for peace, no humanity. All it is, on both sides, is shouting, anger, bloodshed, pain, ugliness and, for three people in Charlottesville, death.
Is the situation hopeless? No. People get stuck in a moment they can’t get out of, as U2 sang. These neo-Nazis can change their ways. These white supremacists can change their ways. These antifa demonstrators, who believe violence is the answer to extreme points of view, can change their ways. People who shout to get their point across and use sticks and stones to break bones or worse, can all change. Perhaps seeing themselves on TV doing these things will wake them up. Maybe the death of a demonstrator will snap them out of it.
Like many of America’s Confederate monuments, The Stranger’s grave does not seek to glorify the individual or cause, but to serve as a reminder of the great and heroic stories that took place during that time of American history. These are monuments to our history. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
Americans hate mob rule; they hate groupthink. A recent poll shows 62 percent believe the Confederate monuments should stay put. They should stay because they remind us of our history. And reminders help us to avoid future occurrences. If we don’t want reminders should we also ban books and movies that remind us of our past? The neo-Nazis, and their book-burning forerunners, would probably love that.
The answer is love and understanding, as mundane and boring as they may sound. Put down the bats, the shields, the megaphones, the signs and the crazy rhetoric, and realize we’re all in this together. For heaven’s sake, don’t kill each other or write each other off as hopelessly lost. Reason can win the day.
The Ladies of Gray realized that. They realized The Stranger was stuck in a culture he couldn’t get out of. They knew that humans sometimes get stuck and blinded and brainwashed, but they loved him anyway.
In this world where young and old alike can flee to the safe space or news source they feel most comfortable with, some have lost the ability to empathize or calmly discuss issues with those who think differently. Sarah Colley and her friends would be saddened by the lack of tolerance in our nation.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.