24 May 2019

[Fred Wheeler] - Origins of Memorial Day & the Great Debt We All Owe

The worsening lack of historical awareness of our society is saddening and frightening.  For a case in point, ask a group of young people what we will be celebrating on the Fourth of July. Or, what we are memorializing on the approaching Memorial Day. Chances are you will get a bunch of blank stares.

What we now call Memorial Day, before World War ll, was officially called “Decoration Day”. While several places claim to be its birthplace, the consensus is that the holiday’s genesis was in Columbus, Mississippi a year after the Civil War ended

Columbus was the location of a Confederate hospital.  After the battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) many of the wounded were brought there and by the end of the war, the community’s cemetery was the resting place for thousands of souls of Union and Confederate soldiers.

On Confederate Memorial Day (April 25, 1866) the ladies of Columbus laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and the Confederate dead in the cemetery. A poet, Francis Miles Finch, from Ithaca, New York, happened to be in Columbus at that time and was inspired by the ladies’ actions to write a poem, “The Blue and the Gray”. One of the verses reads,
                          “From the silence of sorrowful hours
                            The desolate mourners go,
                            Lovingly laden with flowers
                            Alike for the friend and the foe
                            Under the sod and the dew,
                            Waiting the judgement day;
                             Under the roses, the Blue,
                             Under the lilies, the Gray.”
Former Union General John A. Logan, then a congressman from Illinois and the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization of veterans of Union service) led the campaign to have “Decoration Day” declared a national holiday. It was first celebrated on Saturday, May 30, 1868, a date chosen because it was not the anniversary of any significant battle and because it was when many flowers would be in bloom. On that first “Decoration Day” events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 of the 37 states.

The name of the holiday was gradually changed to “Memorial Day” starting in the 1880s. One would think that “Decoration Day” would require the celebrant’s presence in the cemetery to place actual flowers on the graves. But, one could celebrate a “memorial” no matter where you might be. Finally, in 1967, the name was officially changed and in 1968, under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May.

What are we memorializing on Memorial Day? The table below gives an idea of the number (primarily young men at the prime of life) who have sacrificed their lives to protect our nation in time of war.

          WAR                                                                            TOTAL DEATHS (combat and non-combat)
Revolutionary War         1775-1783                                    25,000
War of 1812                     1812-1815                              15,000
Mexican-American War 1846-1848                                                     13,283
Civil War (combined)      1861-1865                                  664,035
        Union                                                                                          364,511
        Confederate                                                                                   299,524
World war l                       1917-1918                          116,516
World War ll                      1941-1945                          405,399
Korean War                       1950-1953                             36,516
Vietnam War                     1955-1975                              58,209
Afghanistan War               2001-Present                                 2,229
Iraq War                             2003-2011                            4,488
        TOTAL                                                                                       1,321,612
These figures don’t add up because only the major wars have been listed. The Civil War, in terms of deaths and percentage of the population has been the most costly. Young boys, north and south, are buried in hundreds of cemeteries accross  the country (mostly east of the Mississippi River).
The number of fatalities during the Civil War was bad enough, but because of one of the recruiting methods used by north and south, the impact on communities could be catastrophic. Often, a prominent person in the neighborhood would recruit and outfit a company of 100 or even a regiment of 1,000.
The First Texas, recruited from several counties in east Texas lost 82% of its regiment at Sharpsburg (Antietam), September 17,1862.  The 26th North Carolina from seven counties in the western part of the state, suffered 714 casualties out of 800 during the battle of Gettysburg. Eighteen members of the Christian family of Christianburg, Virginia, were killed during the war.
Our nation was slow to learn its lesson. During subsequent wars, units continued to be recruited from communities; friends and family members were encouraged to join and serve together. When I was about ten years old, I put together a model of a Navy destroyer, the U.S.S. Sullivans. It was named after the five Sullivan brothers who were killed when their ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
The numbers making the ultimate sacrifice are large, but it should be remembered that each digit represents a life interrupted, dreams unfulfilled, loved ones left with empty hearts. I knew several friends in school whose fathers had been killed in world War ll or the Korean War. To my knowledge, their widows never re-married.
A family’s loss is compounded when, for whatever reason, the body of the deceased soldier cannot be retrieved or cannot be identified. In response to this tragedy our government created  the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. There, the bodies of one soldier from World War l, two from world War ll, and one from the Korean War lie protected around the clock by an armed guard. The tomb has been inscribed by a grateful nation with the simple words,
                                                           “HERE RESTS IN
                                                             HONERED GLORY
                                                             AN AMERICAN
                                                             KNOWN BUT TO GOD”
The tomb had contained a serviceman from the Vietnam War but he was removed in 1998 because he was identified through DNA as Air Force First Lt Michael Joseph Blassie. This had to be a comfort to his family, but it must have had the reverse effect on many other families who shared the hope that their loved one was at rest in the tomb.
The traveling Vietnam Memorial recently was in our community. You can find each of the 58,000 plus names on the wall and there is a website you can visit to get information about each person.
There’s only one person who I knew personally who was killed in Vietnam, Alan Calloway, who was in my high school class. We played football together. I often think of Alan and wish that he didn’t have to miss out on the rest of his life.
Another person I often think about I never met. When my daughter was in high school, the father of one of her classmates, an Air force pilot, Colonel Fallon, was still listed as MIA. I don’t know if he was ever re-classified as killed in action.
We owe a great debt to these noble warriors and their families who have suffered the loss of a parent, spouse, or child. It would be appropriate to remember that Memorial Day was created to memorialize those who died protecting our way of life—not just to give us a day off from work or to give us an opportunity to go the lake or grill hot dogs and hamburgers with the family.
Thank you, Alan and Colonel Fallen.