On May 31, 1982, President Ronald Reagan looked out at his Memorial Day audience assembled at Arlington National Cemetery. “I have no illusions about what little I can add now to the silent testimony of those who gave their lives willingly for their country,” he admitted, adding that “the willingness of some to give their lives so that others might live never fails to evoke in us a sense of wonder and mystery.”
Thirty-four years later, President Barack Obama came to the same place to talk about the same wondrous sacrifice. “The Americans who rest here, and their families — the best of us, those from whom we asked everything — ask of us today only one thing in return: that we remember them,” he said, observing that among those worthy of memorializing are “generals buried beside privates they led.”
In that spirit, here are the stories of five military commanders — four generals and an admiral — whose lives of service and deaths in the call of duty merit our attention on this Memorial Day.
• William Lee Davidson. Born in Pennsylvania in 1745, Davidson joined many other pioneers in traveling down the Great Wagon Road with his family to settle in North Carolina. Just 29-years-old when the Revolutionary War broke out, Davidson quickly impressed his militia captain, joined the Continental Army, and commanded troops at the 1777 battles of Brandywine and Germantown. When the war’s focus turned southward, Davidson went home to North Carolina. At the February 1, 1781 battle of Cowan’s Ford near Charlotte, now-Brigadier General William Lee Davidson led militiamen in a delaying action against General Charles Cornwallis, giving the American army time to escape. Among the fatalities at Cowan’s Ford was Davidson himself, knocked off his horse by a rifle ball. Among his namesakes is nearby Davidson College.
• Zebulon Pike Jr. A native of New Jersey, Pike grew up in the 1780s and 1790s in frontier outposts in Ohio and Illinois where his father Zebulon Pike Sr., a career officer, was stationed. Following in his father’s footsteps, the younger Pike was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1799. Achieving nationwide fame for a series of explorations he conducted from 1805 to 1807 of America’s newly acquired Louisiana Territory and neighboring regions, Pike entered the War of 1812 determined to prove himself on the field of battle. He did so on April 27, 1813, as the commander of a successful amphibious assault on York, the capital of Upper Canada. The departing British had sabotaged their fort’s powder magazine, however, and the ensuing explosion killed dozens of Americans, including Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. Among his many namesakes is Pikes Peak in Colorado.
• James B. McPherson. An Ohio native, McPherson graduated West Point in 1853 — first in a class that also included future Civil War generals Philip Sheridan, John Bell Hood, and Henry Brevard Davidson (a relative of the aforementioned William Lee Davidson). After a distinguished pre-war career as an engineer that includes supervising the fortification of Alcatraz Island, McPherson served under Ulysses Grant at the battles of Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg, where now-Major General McPherson commanded the Union center. A year later, commanding William T. Sherman’s right wing at Atlanta, McPherson correctly argued to a skeptical Sherman that Hood, recently put in charge of the defending Confederate army, was attempting to flank the besieging Union forces. Galloping back from Sherman’s camp back to his men, McPherson encountered enemy skirmishers and was mortally wounded. General Hood later wrote that the death of his “boyhood friend” caused him “sincere sorrow.” Among McPherson’s namesakes is McPherson Square in Washington, D.C.
• Daniel J. Callahan. A San Francisco native and 1911 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Callahan was a gunnery officer in the years leading up to America’s entry into World War I. Serving on the USS New Orleans, which escorted cargo ships across the North Atlantic, Callahan supervised a challenging rescue of a disabled ocean liner, demonstrating great bravery and ingenuity. After three years as President Franklin Roosevelt’s naval aide, Callahan assumed command in 1941 of the cruiser USS San Francisco. On November 13, 1942, now-Rear Admiral Daniel Callahan was on the deck of the San Francisco, directing American forces at the naval battle of Guadalcanal, when a shell from a Japanese battleship struck home and killed Callahan and most of his bridge staff. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. His namesakes include two destroyers named USS Callahan.
• William Ross Bond. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1940, Bond entered law school but left soon afterward to enlist as World War II raged in Europe. Joining one of the new Army Ranger units, Bond fought in North Africa and Sicily, then earned a Silver Star for heroic service at the 1944 battle of Anzio, where he was captured. After 11 months in prisoner-of-war camps, he escaped to Allied lines. After the war, Bond played a major role in fashioning what became the Green Berets. In 1959 he began his first tour as a military advisor in South Vietnam. In 1964 he assumed command of the 101st Airborne Division but a massive heart attack sidelined him the following year. Through sheer force of will, he fought his way back to active duty. On April 1, 1970, Brigadier General William R. Bond landed in the Bình Thủy district of the Mekong Delta to oversee a mission. A Vietcong sniper’s bullet took his life shortly after he left his helicopter. (Ironically, he was related by marriage to Union General John Sedgwick, who was killed by a Confederate sniper at the 1864 battle of Spotsylvania Court House.)
These and many other heroes, enlisted and officers alike, made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country and the principles it holds dear. “Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough,” President Reagan said in 1982. “The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply.”
John Hood is a foundation executive, author, and columnist who teaches at Duke University. His latest novel, Forest Folk, depicts Zebulon Pike’s heroic end at the 1813 battle of York.