Small-Town Heroes from the Heartland

So it should come as no surprise that so many Medal of Honor winners were born and raised in towns and villages where "community" was more than a word politicians trotted out every couple of years during election season. Of course, Memorial Day also honors those from all over America -- from city, town, and village -- who did not receive the highest honors. Each death in combat meant indescribable pain to loved ones back home. Each loss was keenly felt in big cities and tiny communities across America, where residents who gave that "last full measure of devotion" to keep us free are honored today.

It is a remarkable testament to these little towns that so many of them have erected memorials to the fallen. I have seen them in my travels through the Midwest. I have seen them in Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, and all over Illinois. Many of them were created following the Civil War with solemn additions made after each succeeding conflict. Some are war-specific, a stone or statue honoring the dead from different wars. Others pay homage to all residents killed in combat since the town was born. Most list the dead from each war. Some lists are longer, some shorter. All the monuments are immaculately, even lovingly kept. Most are given a prominent place in the center of town in a park or a square, although some haunt old cemeteries.

Streator is no different in that respect. Here, a series of memorials to every conflict in American history takes up a large space in the town park located near the city center. The granite and marble sparkles from being carefully maintained. You can see your reflection in the bronze statues and forever silent cannon, so meticulously kept they are. Many times as I have driven by in the late afternoon, I see someone -- a nameless veteran, perhaps -- placing fresh flowers where appropriate or sweeping the stones that front the impressive Vietnam War Memorial. I can imagine this scene being repeated in thousands of towns and villages across America on a regular basis, as the devotion to maintaining a memorial to the local servicemen who have fallen is simply part of the regular rhythms that mark the passage of time in small-town America.

This Memorial Day in Streator was a special one. A six-foot tall obelisk dedicated to those Streator men who fell during the Civil War was unveiled in Veterans Plaza and now stands a silent sentinel to courage and devotion along with the other memorials to wars fought by the United States. Named on the obelisk are two brothers -- Lyston and Orion Howe -- who, despite their youth and small stature, contributed to the war effort as drummer boys:

Lyston may have been the youngest soldier in the Union army, according to the Streator Times:

When Lyston first enlisted with his father in the 15th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in 1861, he was only 10 years and 9 months old. In 1906, the federal pension office determined that made Lyston the youngest soldier.

Later during the war, all three served in the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

There were an estimated 100,000 of these drummer boys under the age of 15 in the two armies who played a vital role in regimental life as well as in combat. They beat the regiment to reveille, to meals, to drill, and to sleep. They beat for officer's call as well as keeping cadence on the march.

On the battlefield, they stuck close by the commanding officer and beat out instructions to the troops. And when not drumming, the boys acted as stretcher bearers for the ambulances.

But in the case of Orion Howe, Lyston's older brother, opportunity came at the battle of Vicksburg to demonstrate his courage under fire. His Medal of Honor citation (awarded in 1896) reads:

A drummer boy, 14 years of age, and severely wounded and exposed to a heavy fire from the enemy, he persistently remained upon the field of battle until he had reported to Gen. W. T. Sherman the necessity of supplying cartridges for the use of troops under command of Colonel Malmborg.

Orion took many months to heal from his wounds at Vicksburg but he eventually rejoined his regiment and stuck with them until the end of the war.

Abe Lincoln gave Orion an appointment to the Naval Academy for his bravery. He joined the Merchant Marine instead and then moved to Streator, where he opened a saddle shop. But the young man became something of a wanderer, moving back to Streator for a few years at a time but always leaving for new adventures somewhere else. His brother Lyston eventually settled in Streator, where he raised a family and lived to the ripe old age of 87.

There are thousand of towns in America that, while perhaps not boasting a Medal of Honor winner, can nonetheless take pride in the service of men like Orion Howe. And on this Memorial Day, as the high school or community bands blare out the old familiar patriotic favorites and young and old gather around monuments in city parks or green plazas to remember the sacrifices of the fallen, it might be appropriate to recall the values these men and women held close to their hearts -- the values that sustained them in their hour of trial. Yes, we should honor the dead for their sacrifices. But honor them also for the all-American values that animated their patriotism and the deeply held beliefs we proudly share with them.