Memorial Day is a time to honor bravery, and we have shown plenty of it in the history of our republic. But you wonder, sometimes, who was bravest? The soldiers at Valley Forge, freezing and starving with no hope of victory? The men who survived Bataan? The troops who charged Omaha Beach? Maybe. But here’s my nomination:

At the end of 1863, the enlistments of many of the original Union regiments was coming to an end. These were the men who had put on blue in 1861 when it was assumed the coming war was going to be short and glorious–one or two big battles, and then everyone except for an unfortunate few would march home with their flags to much fanfare.

But by the fall of 1863, those Yankees who were left (and a great many were not) had gotten a good look at the elephant–the very first industrialized war, which was to take more American lives than any other. Once thought to be 620,000 fatalities for both sides, the figure has now been revised upward to 750,000, the equivalent of 6.2 million today. In World War II, by comparison, we lost 450,000 men. It was a bloodbath the likes of which we have not seen since.

For Confederate troops, there was no discharge. Either the war would end, or they would be killed, or crippled so badly they would be dismissed from the service. But the Union had far more troops, and when their time was up, those troops had the option of going home and saving their lives.

However, if they did, the North stood a good chance of losing the war, even after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. There were draft riots in the cities, and bounty men were filling the ranks that patriots had once occupied. These men had no chance against Jefferson Davis’ “lean and hungry wolves.”

And so the Union offered its veteran soldiers a bounty if they would re-enlist ($400 and change, a lot of money then), and a month’s leave, and the opportunity to serve in what were known as Veteran Volunteer Regiments, with distinctive uniforms.

Possibly the money motivated some, possibly the 30 days furlough. But most likely, it was the knowledge among the Yankee veterans that if they did not see the war through, all their sacrifice to date would be for nothing. It could still be lost. For whatever reason, enough to get the job done signed up again, and it cost a great many the life they had the chance to save.

The extraordinary bravery of this lies in the fact that they signed the enlistment papers coldly. It was not done in the heat of battle. There were no drums, no bugles, no visions of glory to spur them on. They were walking into a meat grinder, and they knew it. They had been as badly led and as poorly used as any American troops in history, and they went anyway.

I can’t comprehend that kind of courage; I can only stand in awe of it.

Photo by Senior Airman Dennis Sloan, via Flickr