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On this day in…

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

On this day…in 1918

Merle Hay of Glidden has the distinction of not only being the first Iowan to die in World War I, he was also the first U.S. casualty in the war. The first “Archer” to die in service may have been Agincourt native Marshall McGinnis, who enlisted in the summer of 1917 shortly after America entered the conflict. I know this from an afternoon spent among the multiple war memorials on The Square, perhaps the least visited public space in the city. As the recent deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan are reported, and U.S. involvement in Syria looms in the public debate, it seemed proper to make a pilgrimage to our cluster of war memorials and wonder where these most recent conflicts will find space in our Civic Memory.

Ninety-five years ago today, one of our own—Marshall McGinnis—was part of the First Expeditionary Division (later the 1st Infantry Division or “The Big Red One”) responding to German advance toward Paris. Bringing aid to exhausted French troops, the First took up positions near the village of Cantigny and the forest nearby. During a routine patrol assessing German strength, Pvt Marshall McGinnis was wounded and taken to a field hospital where he died several hours later, but not before learning his comrades had taken the town in a forty-five minute battle that captured 250 German soldiers. That knowledge may have afforded Pvt McGinnis more comfort that it did his parents John and Meghan when news reached their farm near Fahnstock. They aren’t here to say.

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Young McGinnis was born at home on the family farmstead in 1896 and attended Fahnstock’s elementary school. By 1905 county youth were attending Agincourt’s high school, however; that’s where Marshall graduated in 1914, just weeks before war broke out and America struggled with neutrality, with its high German population, with foreign entanglements. He had already found work in Henry Carstens’ cabinet shop. At the regional history center, I found a photograph of McGinnis standing proudly beside his first project as a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. Good work, if you ask me, and promise for a bright future. If only….

Closure for losses like Pvt McGinnis are never easy, especially when the body can’t come home to its native soil. Now he rests with over 14,000 other American war dead at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. Which makes the memorial in The Square all the more important, I suppose. The McGinnises have moved away; their land is farmed by others as their child waits beneath an ordered landscape in eastern France. So his memory belongs to us.

Is it in good hands?


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