Decorating Sacrifice: Honoring Our Fallen

Most Americans have no connection Memorial Day, their heritage or to the legacy left behind by those who gave their lives in service to this country.

Most Americans have no connection Memorial Day, their heritage or to the legacy left behind by those who gave their lives in service to this country.

This weekend, we Americans are being inundated with myriad auditory treats, such as the sound of burgers and hot dogs sizzling on the barbecue grill, the roar of the ski boats tearing across the lake, the rapid-clicking of fishing reels spinning, or the din of children playing in the backyard. All of this points to the commencement of summer and the excitement-filled season of outdoor activities, vacations and fun. The bonus is that we get to extend this weekend by a day and play a little harder as that’s what this weekend is all about!

With the opening volleys of artillery (the Confederates firing on Fort Sumter) in the early morning hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, a war of the bloodiest nature commenced within the confines of what was known as the United States of America, but which was anything but united. The division of the states had been years in the making as the founding fathers could hardly agree on the slavery issue when trying to establish a single Constitution that would bind the individual states together as one unified nation. The division led to an all-out conflict—a war that would pit brother against brother and father against son—that wouldn’t cease until almost exactly four years later (at Appomattox on April 10, 1865) and three-quarters of a million Americans were dead (the number was recently revised, up from 618,000, by demographic historians).

A 1911 reunion pamphlet for the United Confederate Veterans organization.

A 1911 reunion pamphlet for the United Confederate Veterans organization.

In the days, weeks, months and years that followed, the sting of the Civil War would linger as families suffered the loss of generations of men. The Southern States where battles took place had cities that were obliterated. The agricultural Industry was devastated. The business operation surrounding the king crop of the south, cotton, heavily dependent upon slave labor, had to be completely revamped. Many plantations never returned to operation. The Northern industries that had grown extremely profitable and dependent upon the war, churning out uniforms, accouterments, artillery pieces and ammunition, no longer had a customer.


Although the South was undergoing reconstruction and the nation was moving to put the war in the past, and some Americans who lost everything were seeking to start afresh in the West. Like the servicemen and women of the current conflicts, Union and Confederate veterans alike were dealing with the same lingering effects of the combat trauma they had endured. While life for them was moving on, they were drawn to their comrades-in-arms seeking the friendship they shared while in uniform. In 1866, Union veterans began reuniting, forming a long-standing veterans organization (which would last until 1956 when the last veteran died) that would be known as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Similarly, Confederate troops would reunite, but wouldn’t formally organize until 1889 with the United Confederate Veterans.

While the country was still engaged in the war, the spouses and mothers of troops, along with their local communities, honored those killed in the war—the scant few that were returned home for burial—by decorating their graves. Freed slaves (known as Freedmen) from Charleston, South Carolina, knew of a tragedy that took place at a prisoner of war (POW) camp where there were more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in captivity and had been buried in unmarked graves. The Freedmen, knowing about the graves, organized and gathered at the burial site to beautify the grounds in recognition of the sacrifices made by the soldiers on their behalf. On May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 Freedmen, Union veterans, school children and missionaries and black ministers, gathered to honor the dead at the site on what would come to be recognized as the first Memorial Day.

“This was the first Memorial Day. African-Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” – historian David W. Blight

The largest gathering of Civil War veterans took place in 1913 at the Gettysburg battlefield, marking the 50th anniversary of this monumental battle. Soldiers from all of the participating units converged on the various sites to recount their actions, conduct reenactments, and to simply reconnect with their comrades. Heavily documented by photographers and newsmen alike, the gathering gave twentieth century Americans a glimpse into the past and the personal aspects of the battles and the lifelong impact they had on these men. By the 1930s, the aged veterans numbers had dwindled considerably yet they still continued to reunite. In one of these last gatherings, Confederate veterans recreated their battle cry, the Rebel Yell, for in this short film (digitized by the Smithsonian Institute).

The Militaria Collecting Connection

GAR Membership medals are very collectible and are reasonably priced.

GAR Membership medals are very collectible and are reasonably priced.

While collecting Civil War militaria can be quite an expensive venture, items related to these veterans organizations and reunions are a great alternative. One item that is particularly interesting, the GAR membership medal, was authorized for veterans to wear on military uniforms by Congressional action. The medals or badges were used to indicate membership within the organization or to commemorate one of its annual reunions or gatherings.

Over the years following the 1913 reunion, veterans and their families increasingly honored those killed during the war around the same time each year. As early as 1882, the day to honor the Civil War dead (traditionally, May 30) was also known as Memorial Day. After gaining popularity in the years following World War II, Memorial Day became official as congress passed a law in 1967, recognizing Memorial Day as a federal holiday. The following year, on June 28, the holiday was moved to the last Monday of May, creating a three-day weekend.

A woman walks the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day.

A woman walks the cemetery grounds on Memorial Day.

The grave of Union Veteran and GAR member, Omar Cheney.

The grave of Union Veteran and GAR member, Omar Cheney.

This Memorial Day, rather than committing the day to squeezing in one last waterskiing pass on the lake or grilling up a slab of ribs, head out to a cemetery (preferably a National Cemetery if you are in close enough proximity) and decorate a veteran’s grave with a flag and spend time in reflection of the price paid by all service members who laid down their lives for this nation. Note the stark contrast to the violence experienced on the field of battle as you take in the stillness and quiet peace of the surroundings, observing the gentleness of the billowing flags.

Posted on May 27, 2016, in Civil War, Ephemera and Photographs, Medals, Other Militaria, Ribbons and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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