Friday, June 12, 2015

From Molleville Farm to Memorial Day

Being a Civil War historian who lives within a ten minutes’ drive of four major battlefields of that great conflict, I have grown accustomed to inadvertently stumbling upon historic markers or headstones that pertain to my line of work.

But this past Memorial Day, I had an unexpected encounter with the First World War right in my own back yard.

I had purchased some patriotic red, white, and blue flowers and took my two oldest children, ages 5 and 4, to Fredericksburg National Cemetery to decorate the grave of a fallen soldier. Determined to teach them to be good citizens, we tramped up the hill in the stifling heat, looking for a neglected grave to decorate.

When we had reached the opposite end of the cemetery and my children began to complain of the heat, I abandoned my search for the “perfect” unmarked grave and looked for the nearest headstone of someone - anyone - who had died in wartime.

After taking a few more steps, I was stunned when the grave in front of me bore the inscription “116 INF., 29 DIV.” and the date of death was October 15, 1918.

The grave belonged to Fredericksburg native Pvt. Robert L. Jenkins who served with Co. K of the 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. Company K was one of two units recruited out of Fredericksburg (the other being the 10th Company, Coast Defenses of the Chesapeake Bay.)

The date that Jenkins was killed in action was significant to me as well.

One year prior to this family visit my essay "Storming the Heights of the Meuse: The 29th and 33d Divisions Fight for Control of the High Ground, 8–16 October" had been published in Edward G. Lengel's A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, so I knew exactly where this man had fallen – an awful death trap called Molleville Farm.

A key position east of the Meuse River, the 29th Division first encountered Molleville Farm on October 11, 1918. The Division had been in sustained combat for three days, so the division commander had to lean heavily on the 116th Infantry Regiment in order to gain this objective. One of the chief problems with attacking Molleville Farm was that it could not be flanked – the only way to take it would be a head-on frontal assault.

A modern view of Molleville Farm, courtesy of "Nunthatch" at
Pvt. Jenkins was killed on the day that the fight for Molleville Farm reached it brutal climax, with the 29ers finally taking the farm and enduring vicious German counterattacks for the rest of the day.

I had little trouble deciding that this would be the grave that we would decorate on Memorial Day. After spending a minute placing flowers on the grave, my daughter asked if she could say a prayer. I agreed, and after another brief moment, we began the long walk back to the car.

My oldest child, praying at the grave of Pvt. Jenkins

Pvt. Jenkins was one of five men from Fredericksburg who were killed in the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, and I am extremely grateful to have had the chance to honor him with my children. For that brief moment the horrific hour of Jenkins’s sacrifice reached across the 96 year chasm that separates us and touched our lives.

With the 100th anniversary of American involvement in the First World War just around the corner, it is my hope that many families across the country will have at least one such interaction during the commemoration.