MARC CHASE: The curious case of a son of Merrillville

2014-05-06T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: The curious case of a son of MerrillvilleMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
May 06, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Sometimes curiosity kills the cat. But every now and then it brings us closer to those with whom we've previously quarreled.

James, a son of Merrillville, learned this at a time when factional differences led to incredible bloodshed.

As a U.S. Army soldier frequently on guard duty near the front lines of war, James could nearly reach out and touch the enemy on multiple occasions.

He was trained to report the enemy's movements and shoot men of the opposing side if they came too close.

And fraternizing with the enemy? It was forbidden by upper command. Though, as in all wars, it wasn't unheard of either. Stories abound in history of battle armistices in which fighting ceases and normally dueling enemies shake hands in an open field, play games, trade cigarettes and partake of other frivolity until the inevitable blood bath begins anew.

James reported seeing something like this during his military service.

The more he observed the movements of enemy troops, the more he became curious about who they were as people.

That curiosity spilled over one humid evening near the banks of a river when James and a couple of his fellow soldiers spotted a handful of enemy troops on the opposite bank.

From across the water, men from two warring sides set aside their arms and began shooting friendly words — rather than bullets — at one another. The conversation led to an invitation for James and his fellow infantrymen to cross the river, play cards and dine in an enemy camp that night.

The offer was more than James' curiosity could bear. He slipped across the river and enjoyed a meal and some frivolity with the folks who had been shooting at him for a couple of years prior to this most unlikely of dinner dates.

I can only believe such a meeting helped James better understand his enemy — perhaps realize similarities upon which a peace could be built.

Unfortunately, James was a lowly private in the Army and unlikely to share his experiences with commanding officers who had ordered against such interaction. So at the end of the meal, James crossed back over the river, returning to his fighting unit's ranks.

It's hard to say how this experience truly shaped James. A year later, in the fires of Civil War raging within our nation's borders, the fellowship James shared with Confederate soldiers was replaced by a hail of lead bullets.

On May 5, 1864 — 150 years ago yesterday — one of those bullets met its mark, killing James, a fighting man of the 20th Indiana Infantry during the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. He was one of more than 3,700 people who died in that three-day battle alone — and one of as many as 700,000 who died in the four-year war.

James wasn't just a son of Merrillville. He was a son of Merrill. You see, Merrillville is named for James' father, Dudley Merrill, one of Lake County's earliest settlers.

James Merrill's Civil War story — his desire to better understand his enemy and his death at that enemy's hands — offers powerful lessons. How better off would we be if more time was spent finding common ground rather than fighting our rivals?

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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