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).
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
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.
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.
Over the past few weeks, I have taken a little time to focus on other priorities such as my primary job (I don’t write on a full-time basis), my family and my fitness (not necessarily in that order). In response to that focus, my attention had shifted away from militaria and the various aspects of collecting during that period of time. Now that we are in the latter half of May, I need to bring my thoughts back to my passion for military history as one of the most important holidays (in my opinion) draws near.
Turning on the news this morning, my interest in the weekend forecast is piqued as the meteorologist begins to discuss the cooler than normal temperatures, the risk of rainfall and how these conditions will impact camping, boating and backyard barbecue plans. The statement really struck me as my only considerations for this weekend surrounded spending time at the various cemeteries and placing flags on fallen veterans’ graves and those of my veteran ancestors and relatives. This activity is something my wife and I have been doing dating back to my time in uniform. Making alternative plans is never a consideration and now my children are so accustomed to this practice, they look forward to Memorial Day.
As our culture continues to morph and shift with each passing year, the gap of time expands and the meaning and origins of Memorial Day fade from the American population’s conscience. In a time where less than half of one percent of Americans are serving in uniform, there is virtually no understanding of the personal sacrifices (that are routinely paid by those on active duty). When someone falls on the battlefield, that societal understanding of the price paid just isn’t there. I increasingly wonder how it is that we arrived at this point.
Americans’ Participation in War
- 1860 US Population (North + South): 29 million | 3.2 million served (10.35% of population)
WWII era (avg. 1941-45): 136.7 million | 16.1 million served (11.8 %)
- Vietnam era (avg. 1964-74) 203 million | 9 million served (4.5%)
Current population: 314 million | 1.4 million serving (0.46%)
With fewer Americans serving in uniform, particularly during the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, general population is disconnected from the costly nature of service. It is no wonder that our culture tends to be more self-focused as they spend Memorial Day without considering the sacrifices that afforded them the freedom to enjoy a three-day weekend.
Through my quest to understand the origins of this particular holiday, I have been led to be more forgiving of people who choose outdoor activities over trips to cemeteries. Considering that the present-day Memorial Day federal recognition was born from Decoration Day – a tradition started following the end of the American Civil War as surviving veterans began to deal with the battlefield losses of their comrades. Over the passing years, these veterans formed various veterans organizations (ranging from unit-specific to the enormous such as the GAR and UCV) and took the lead on preserving the legacy of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Because of the efforts of these groups, battlefield and cemetery preservation and monument construction efforts were undertaken along with ceremonial gatherings for commemorative dedications.
Throughout our nation’s history, it has been the veterans who have taken the lead on honoring the war dead. Mourning the loss of a brother (or sister) who fell on the field of battle is something a surviving veteran never forgets. That moment isn’t simply a memory etched into their minds but rather akin to a remaining scar in place of a missing limb. It cannot be forgotten or, as some civilians would suggest, something to “get over.”
A few years ago, I started taking notice of various references to Decoration Day and antique items that make mention of it. One of those items that caught my attention was a postcard (from the early 20th Century) depicting an elderly Civil War veteran placing a wreath of flowers at a grave. The image, an illustration, was so moving that I was overwhelmed with emotions. The postcard evoked more recent memories of World War II veterans (at D-Day celebrations) paying respects to their fallen comrades some 70 years hence and the fresh, vivid memories painted across their faces.
Over the course of the past century, it seems that nothing has changed. Veterans still ache for their lost buddies and they are compelled to continue to honor them as long as they are physically able to do so. As a veteran, I am committed to continuing the tradition of honoring and remembering those who gave their last full measure protecting and ensuring freedom for future generations.