The Unknown Soldier
By Melvin B. Tolson
I was a minuteman at Concord Bridge,
I was a frigate-gunner on Lake Erie,
I was a mortarman at Stony Ridge,
I fought at San Juan Hill and Château Thierry,
I braved Corregidor and the Arctic Sea:
The index finger brings democracy.
These States bred freedom in and in my bone—
Old as the new testament of Plymouth Bay.
When the Founding Fathers laid the Cornerstone
And rued the thirteen clocks that would not say
The hour on the hour, I nerved myself with them
Under the noose in the hand of the tyrant’s whim.
I’ve seen the alien ships of destiny
Plow the sea mountains between the hemispheres.
I’ve seen the Gulf Stream of our history
Littered with derelicts of corsair careers.
I’ve heard the watchman cry, “The bars! The bars!”
When midnight held the funeral of stars.
I saw horizontal States grow vertical,
From Plymouth Harbor to the Golden Gate,
Till wedged against skyscapes empyreal
Their glories elbowed the decrees of fate.
These States bred freedom in and in my bone:
I hymn their virtues and their sins atone.
The tares and wheat grow in the self-same field,
The rose and thorn companion on the bush,
The gold and gravel cuddle in the yield,
The oil and grit and dirt together gush.
The Gordian knot to be or not to be
Snares not the free.
My faith props the tomorrows, for I know
The roots of liberty, tough-fibered, feed
On the blood of tyrants and martyrs; the judas blow
Tortures the branches till they twist and bleed;
And yet no Caesar, vitamined on loot,
Can liberty uproot!
I am the Unknown Soldier: I open doors
To the Rights of Man, letters incarnadine.
These shrines of freedom are mine as well as yours;
These ashes of freemen yours as well as mine.
My troubled ghost shall haunt These States, nor cease
Till the global war becomes a global peace.
World War I—known at the time as “The Great War”—officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, in the Palace of Versailles outside the town of Versailles, France. However, fighting ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.”
Veterans Day, which is tomorrow, originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution in 1926 for an annual observance, and Nov. 11 became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans—living or dead—but especially gives thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably during war or peacetime.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a monument dedicated to deceased U.S. service members whose remains have not been identified. It is located in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, United States. The World War I “Unknown” is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the Victoria Cross, and several other foreign nations’ highest service awards. The U.S. Unknowns who were interred are also recipients of the Medal of Honor, presented by U.S. presidents who presided over their funerals. The monument has no officially designated name.
Dozens of countries have a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These tombs are a monument dedicated to the services of unknown soldiers interred at the monument and to the common memories of all soldiers killed in war. These tombs can be found in many nations and are usually high-profile national monuments. Throughout history, many soldiers have died in war with their remains being unidentified. Following World War I, a movement arose to commemorate these soldiers with a single tomb, containing the body of one such unidentified soldier.
Many of these Tombs of the Unknown are usually guarded by honorary sentinels at all times. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, the tomb guards are soldiers of the United States Army. It is considered one of the highest honors to serve as a Sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Fewer than 20 percent of all volunteers are accepted for training and of those only a fraction pass training to become full-fledged Tomb Guards. The soldier “walking the mat” does not wear rank insignia, so as not to outrank the Unknowns, whatever their ranks may have been. Non-commissioned officers (usually the Relief Commander and Assistant Relief Commanders), do wear insignia of their rank when changing the guard only. They have a separate uniform (without rank) that is worn when they actually guard the Unknowns or are “posted.” The duties of the sentinels are not purely ceremonial. The sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or whom they perceive to be disrespectful or excessively loud.
About the Poet
Melvin B. Tolson (February 6, 1898 – August 29, 1966) was an American poet, educator, columnist, and politician. As a poet, he was influenced both by Modernism and the language and experiences of African Americans, and he was deeply influenced by his study of the Harlem Renaissance. Known for his complex, visionary poetry, Melvin B. Tolson was one of America’s leading Black poets.
Tolson was born in 1898 in Moberly, Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1924 and a master’s degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University in 1940. In 1947, Liberia appointed him as poet laureate. He is the author of numerous works, including the poetry collections Harlem Gallery: Book One, The Curator (1965), Libretto for the Republic of Liberia(1953), and Rendezvous with America (1944), and the plays Black Boy (1963) and Black No More (1952).
Tolson had a vibrant teaching career. In Marshall, Texas, he taught English and speech at Wiley College, where he led an award-winning debate team. From 1947 to 1965, he was a professor of English, speech, and drama at Langston University, a historically black college in Langston, Oklahoma.