This is the face of your ancestors. He’s a young Civil War soldier. No matter what war your ancestors fought, they all went into it as innocently and bravely as this young man. Many of them never came home.
While you’re guzzling beer, barbecuing, and sitting by the pool with your families and friends, please remember that Memorial Day is not just a party and a day off work. This is a day on which we are supposed to stop and remember the men and women who “gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”* Put down the beer and find someone in the military or a veteran in the military and say thank you. Find the graves of your ancestors who fought for their country and lay flowers for them. Donate to battlefield preservation before it’s all eaten up by commercial development.
One might think my bias towards the Civil War makes me ignore other soldiers on Memorial Day but the truth is Memorial Day evolved because of the Civil War. It is estimated that somewhere between 620,000 and 700,000 casualties were tallied in that war of a total fighting force of approximately 3 million soldiers. If you do the math, that is roughly 1 casualty per every 5 soldiers (in NKOTB terms since a lot of you know me because of them – 1 New Kid of the 5 was likely to have been killed). That is roughly 20% of all soldiers becoming casualties. That is roughly 155,000 casualties per year over four years. In 1860, there were 31,443,321 citizens and slaves populating the US, which translates to roughly 10% of the population in active combat. America has not seen numbers like that in any war since the Civil War. There were more casualties in the Civil War than in every other American war combined to date. Think of 9/11 happening about five or six times per year over four years. That was what it was like to live during the Civil War. That is why Memorial Day evolved.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.**
|Memorial Day flags at Arlington National Cemetery.|
People usually ask me what they can do when they read my Memorial Day blogs. I approach this in two ways.
1.) I encourage people to adopt a soldier serving overseas today. I have done this many times and I use www.adoptaussoldier.org now. I was using www.adoptaplatoon.org but there are allegations now that it’s a scam so I jumped ship with them.
2.) Battlefield preservation is a must. Nearly 20% of Civil War battlefields have already been destroyed by commercial and residential development. Only 15% of Civil War battlefields that still exist are actually protected by the National Park Service. We cannot depend on the government to protect these hallowed places. Organizations like the Civil War Preservation Trust have been working for years to protect what remains of Civil War battlefields but they need our help to do it. Please go to www.civilwar.org to read about how you can help protect our heritage and make donations.
*Source: the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln, 1863.