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What The Confederate Stranger and A Small Town in Maine Can Teach Us About Human Decency

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In 1862, a man named Lt. Charles H. Colley of Gray, ME was killed during the Battle of Cedar Mountain. When his grieving family opened up the casket that was supposed to contain their son, they were stunned to discover that a fully uniformed Confederate soldier had been shipped to them instead. Having no way to identify the soldier, and also lacking the means to ship him back to Virginia, Lt. Colley's family decided to bury him in Gray Village Cemetery alongside the Union soldiers who had been killed in the war. They figured that this unknown Confederate's family would appreciate the gesture, even though they'd never find out about it. The Ladies of Gray, a group of mothers whose sons were either missing, injured, or killed in the war, paid to put up a headstone for this unknown Confederate.

The headstone's inscription is simple and gut-wrenching: "Stranger. A soldier of the late war. Erected by the Ladies of Gray."

For the first 90-something years after Stranger's most unexpected arrival in Maine, his headstone was treated the same as all of the other veterans buried at the cemetery. Since 1956, however, a Confederate battle flag has been placed next to Stranger's gravesite each Memorial Day--a pop of solid red amidst a sea of American flags.

This past Father's Day, while visiting family back in my home state of Maine, I had the chance to pay a visit to the Confederate Stranger's grave, and seeing the stone was a very sobering experience. Gray sent more people to fight for the Union Army per capita than any small town in Maine, and nearly 200 of them didn't get to come home. The people of Gray, especially mothers whose sons could have been shot at or killed by Stranger, had every right to have simply buried Stranger in an unmarked grave in a field somewhere in the town. It would have been completely understandable--this person was, after all, an enemy soldier during a time of war. Instead, they recognized their shared humanity with this unknown man, and buried him alongside local heroes and treated him like one of their own.

Which brings me to today. While the nation certainly isn't as polarized as it was during the 1860s, the situation is pretty bad. People are going out of their way to isolate themselves in a bubble of only their own views. Take a look at what people are saying on Facebook about people they once called their friends: (language warning) 

We've come a long way from 1862, but not entirely in a good way. People are quick to use a person's political beliefs to define them as a person, when in reality, politics are just a piece of the puzzle that makes people, people. We're all different, and somehow in the last 150 years it has become acceptable to completely remove someone from your life (or ask them to remove themselves) because of political differences. That's insane.

As a society, we should look to the actions of the Ladies of Gray for inspiration on how to behave with decency and respect in times of fighting and conflict. In 1862, America was at a war with itself--it doesn't get more polarized than that. If the Ladies of Gray could find it within themselves to create and maintain a dignified memorial to a man who was quite literally trying to kill their sons before he died, there's no excuse for the rest of us to not get along.

This election cycle has been a doozy, there's no denying that. The rhetoric being spewed by both sides is borderline nasty, and we're a nation divided once again. Despite this, it's important to remember that we have more commonalities than differences--and that through it all, we're all still human beings...regardless of who receives our vote in November.

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