(Note: The following is an edited-for-print version of an address Mike Buffington made at the Banks County Memorial Day service on Monday, May 27, 2019.)
I’m honored to take part in this program and to join you in honoring those who died serving our country. My father, who was a combat veteran of WWII in the Pacific Theater, thought more attention should be given to Memorial Day and what it stood for. He survived the war, but many of his comrades did not.
Paying homage to soldiers who die in battle goes back thousands of years.
The Spartans of ancient Greece would carry a dead soldier on his shield to his burial. They would then engrave an epitaph to the dead on a memorial nearby.
After the famous battle of Thermopylae where the Spartans fought to the last man against the Persians, this epitaph was composed to the Spartan dead:
“O Stranger, tell the Spartans that here we remain, obedient to their orders.”
Over the centuries, the way cultures honored their war dead has varied. But there developed a trend to move away from mass burials to burying soldiers individually so as to honor their individual sacrifice.
In addition, most cultures developed a practice to honor fallen soldiers with monuments both large and small. Every nation has war memorials which honor those who died in battle.
It was following the American Civil War that our own nation began to form its modern rituals for honoring fallen soldiers. From that conflict came the creation of our large military cemeteries, especially Arlington Cemetery, which is considered hallowed ground in our nation.
And of course, there is the Gettysburg cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous speech dedicating the ground where so many American boys had lost their lives.
Lincoln said in his speech that:
“We here are highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain”
Those words foreshadowed what was to come.
Following the Civil War, the contours of our national Memorial Day began to take shape. Over the decades since, it has become one of our nation’s most solemn holidays.
At its core, Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice in a time of war.
So today, I want to take a moment to share the stories of two local men who died in battle so that we can honor and remember their sacrifice.
Newel P. Seay was born in 1891 in Homer, Ga. At some point, his family moved to rural Macon County, North Carolina. By 1910, he was the oldest of eight children of John and Lelia Ann Seay.
Like most rural families of the time, the Seays were farmers and Newel was a farm laborer.
Sometime in the 19-teens, the family decamped from North Carolina and moved to Maysville, Ga., living on Postal Route 27. There are conflicting documents as to whether the Seay family lived in Banks or Jackson County.
Regardless, on May 28, 1918, Newel Seay entered into military service, called up by the Jackson County draft board. He was among 28 men from Jackson County that month who were called into service as the United States entered WWI.
Newel was 26-years-old when he was called up, not married, of medium build with brown eyes and brown hair which was cut short and parted on the left side.
He first went to Camp Gordon for training, then in July or August of 1918, left Camp Merritt, New Jersey, on a ship bound for France.
He was assigned to Company L, 128th Infantry of the 32nd Division.
Sylvestus Moon was born in 1896 in Athens, Georgia, the oldest son of Nelson and Chancy Moon. He had four siblings and was known by the nickname, “Vestus.”
Like Newel Seay, Moon lived on Postal Route 27 of Maysville.
Also like Seay, Moon was a farm laborer.
In February, 1918, Moon was inducted into the military, went for training at Camp Jackson in South Carolina, and then shipped out to France in April, 1918, a few months before Seay was sent over.
Moon’s regiment was among the first drafted regiments to sail from the U.S. to France and among the first American outfits to take to the trenches.
Moon was assigned to Company C of the 371st Infantry.
So we have two men from Maysville, Georgia, who in the spring and summer of 1918, left their family farms, went for military training and then shipped out to France as part of the American Expeditionary Forces to the Great War.
Both men were privates, rural boys from North Georgia who answered when their nation called.
That’s what we know. What we don’t know is if the two men knew each other as neighbors in Maysville. They didn’t go to school together and of the two, only Newel Seay could write his name.
When Sylvestus Moon arrived in France in the Spring of 1918, his regiment was put under the command of the French Army, which badly needed reinforcements.
Moon and his colleagues had to turn in all their U.S. military weapons, including their prized Springfield rifles, and they received French military equipment, including French rifles, bayonets, helmets, packs and other supplies. They only kept their American khaki uniforms.
The unit then had to train in French warfare tactics and communication.
Imagine, a farm boy from Maysville who couldn’t write his own name in English, having to learn enough French so he could understand his commanders’ orders.
The 371st Infantry was on the line for over three months in France during the summer of 1918.
In September, it was pulled from the line, supposedly for a rest in the back.
But that didn’t last. In late September, it was put on the line in the Ardennes for the “Final Offensive” of the Great War.
It’s casualties over two weeks in late September and early October 1918 were staggering — 1,065 men out of 2,384 were killed, wounded, taken prisoner or went missing — a 44 percent casualty rate.
One of those killed in action was Sylvestus Moon of Maysville who died during the early days in the offensive.
Like Sylvestus Moon, Newel Seay was on the front lines in France in the Fall of 1918.
Seay was part of the 128th Infantry. Because of its fighting fury, the French labeled the outfit “Les Terribles,” — The Terrible Ones.
The 128th was part of piercing the infamous Hindenburg Line and a red arrow was subsequently added to the regiment’s patch, a symbol which remains today.
Starting in late September 1918, about the time Moon was killed, Seay’s regiment was thrown into the massive Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which stretched all along the Western Front.
It was the largest offensive in United States military history, involving 1.2 million American soldiers.
It was also part of the final offensive of World War I and is remembered today as the U.S.’s deadliest battle with over 26,000 American soldiers killed.
One of those killed was Newel Seay of Maysville. Seay was killed on Nov. 7, 1918, just four days before the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.
Seay later received the Victory medal after his father applied for it on his behalf in 1920.
Both Seay and Moon were at first reported as missing in action. It was only months later that their families were notified they had been killed in action.
We don’t know too much about how, or exactly where, Newel Seay died, but we do have a little speculation about Moon.
In Army records, Moon’s death is recorded as having happened on September 27th. But it may have actually been on Sept. 28th.
The reason is that Moon was part of a famous company in WWI. On Sept. 28th, 1918, Company C of the 371st Infantry made history.
The unit went into no-man’s land and began an assault on Hill 188. The Germans came out of their trench and pretended to surrender.
As Company C approached, the Germans jumped back into their trench and their machine gun fire shredded Company C.
One young corporal of Company C who Moon served with — a man by the name of Freddie Stowers — rallied the remaining men of Company C to knock out a machine gun nest and capture a second trench line.
Stowers was killed in the firefight. Many years later, in 1991, he was awarded the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor, which was presented to two of his surviving sisters in a ceremony at the White House.
It’s possible that Sylvestus Moon was killed the day before that incident, but I wonder if he was part of that assault on Sept. 28, killed in the ambush, and the day of his death not recorded until much later, leading to some confusion about exactly when he was killed.
Whenever he died, Moon received the Purple Heart and Victory Medal.
And there’s more to this story.
You see, Sylvestus Moon was a black man and Newel Seay a white man at a time when race in America was a touchy subject.
That’s why Moon’s regiment — an all-black regiment — had been put under French command when it arrived in Europe in the spring of 1918.
But there is no color in the service of our nation. All men bleed red.
Newel Seay and Sylvestus Moon were neighbors in Maysville, two poor farm boys from Georgia who were soldiers in France during the closing days of WWI. They are two of 11 men from Maysville who died in WWI.
Today, Seay and Moon lie in the massive Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, a cemetery that covers 130 acres and holds the remains of 14,246 American soldiers.
Sylvestus Moon lies beneath a white cross in Plot G, Row 32, Grave 26. He was 22-years-old when he died.
Newel Seay lies in Plot G, Row 36, Grave 27. He was 27-years-old.
Moon and Seay are just 4 graves apart in that cemetery — neighbors in death as they had been in life.
But they share something else, too — both men have largely been forgotten here at home.
It’s not clear why. Perhaps it’s because of the inexact nature of where they lived since Maysville straddles both Banks and Jackson counties.
On both Seay and Moon’s service cards, Jackson County is typed in as their home county, but handwritten above that is the word “Banks.” They are listed in the state WWI database under Banks County.
Also, the local family connections to the community seem to have been broken soon after the war.
The Seay family moved to South Carolina in the 1920s where Newel Seay’s father died in 1932 and his mother died in 1954.
The Moon family moved to Gillsville in Hall County around 1920 where Sylvestus’ mother died in 1923, and his father died in 1931.
Even at the time, there wasn’t much local notice of their deaths. There was a brief mention of Seay’s death in The Jackson Herald in January 1919, but the only mention of Moon I found was on a list of those killed in an article in the Atlanta Constitution in May, 1919.
For whatever reasons, neither Newel Seay’s nor Sylvestus Moon’s names are on any local military memorials. They’re not listed on the Jackson County memorial, nor do they appear on the Banks County memorial.
Their memory has fallen through the cracks of time.
But not today.
On this Memorial Day of 2019, we pause to remember Newel Seay and Sylvestus Moon, two local men who gave their lives for our country on a field in France 100 years ago.
In 1918, amid the carnage of that Great War, English poet John Maxwell Edmonds wrote this epitaph that says what Newel Seay and Sylvestus Moon might tell us today:
Went the day well?
We died and never knew.
But, well or ill,
Freedom, we died for you.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.