Thursday, January 21, 2016

Antietam: Two old soldiers meet FDR at 75th commemoration

FDR greets Union veteran Bazel Lemley, 95,  while Rebel vet Robert Miles, 97, laughs during
a commemoration event at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1937. This image was published
 in many newspapers the next day. The age for Lemley, whose first name was also
spelled Basil, as well as the age for Miles are incorrect in the caption.
On Sept. 17, 1937, 75 years after the Battle of Antietam, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at a commemoration ceremony at the battlefield. Among the crowd were "approximately fifty" Civil War veterans, the Hagerstown (Md.) Morning Herald reported the next day, including at least two who fought at Antietam: Bazel Lemley, 95, and Robert Miles, 97.

"The bitterness of 75 years ago has disappeared and frequently men who fought for the South were
seen arm in arm with soldiers of the North," the Morning Herald reported. "Eagerly the old soldiers, all past four score, and ten, watched the re-enactment of the Bloody Lane phase of the Battle of Antietam over the ground which many of them had traveled as young warriors three-quarters of a century ago. It was a day of pleasure for these aged men and after the program was concluded many expressed themselves as delighted with their visit here."

A sergeant in the 57th Virginia, Miles was struck in the hand and foot by shell fragments at Antietam and lay wounded on the field for hours until he was able to crawl to the safety of his own lines. he claimed that he served later in the war as a dispatcher for Robert E. Lee, whom he said greeted soldiers each morning with, "Good morning, boys." By the end of the Rebellion, Miles had been promoted to captain.

Newspaper coverage of Robert Miles' 101st birthday.
After the war, Miles returned to his Virginia farm in Franklin County, where he and his wife raised 10 children. The old soldier's advice for a good life was simple: "When you start through this world," he told a local newspaper, "commence laughing. Then never quit." When he turned 100, Miles received a letter marking the occasion from FDR, who noted the milestone was "a privilege not vouchsafed to many." The note was one of the former Rebel's most treasured possessions.

Born in Pig River, Va., on Dec. 8, 1839, Miles died in Shawsville, Va., in 1942, two days shy of his 103rd birthday and was buried in his Confederate uniform.

Lemley was 19 when he enlisted in the 37th Pennsylvania as a private on May 15, 1861. He survived Antietam, but was slightly wounded at the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. According to a descendant, Miles was "quite a celebrity around his home" and was quite active up until his death.

Like Miles, Lemley also lived to see his 100th birthday, and even after he reached triple digits, he often walked two miles a day, according to a newspaper account. "He was consistently Greene County's best-dressed senior," another Pennsylvania newspaper noted. On Feb. 18, 1943, eight days after he celebrated his 101st birthday, Lemley died in Mount Morris, Pa. World War I veterans served as pallbearers at his funeral.

"Mr. Lemley was a staunch Republican and among his fondest memories was shaking hands with President Lincoln at a military review and with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the dedication of the 'Eternal Light' memorial at Gettysburg," according to his obituary in the Waynesburg (Pa.) Democrat Messenger.


Robert Miles' grave in Piedmont Cemetery  in Shawsville, Va.
 (Photo courtesy Steve Lucas, Miles descendant)

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