Thankful. For me that’s the right word, the right tone for Memorial Day. Hearing people say “Happy Memorial Day” has always grated on me.
Look, I know we’re full into the three day holiday weekend. I don’t want to completely drown out activities people engage in, from beach trips, to cookouts, shopping etc. with cold water BUT there is a reason Memorial Day is set aside.
To remember and honor those who gave, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
I’d like to add that while we tend to think of those who died on the battlefield itself when thinking about Memorial Day, countless others wound up dying of their wounds days, weeks, months and sometimes years after sustaining them. For me at least, they are as deserving of the honors rendered on Memorial Day as those who died in the field, in the skies or in the oceans during military confrontations. To at least some degree, the same is true of those who have died in training for war. I had multiple close calls myself and if you know anyone serving in or who once served in combat arms if they didn’t have a close call or two then they saw others who did.
It’s a terrible price that has been paid and continues to be paid. It’s NOT too much to ask that amidst all the beginning of summer fun, like trips to the beach or some other destination, the BBQs and taking advantage of all those sales everyone takes some time out to reflect on the fact that so many have sacrificed even their very lives to attain and protect our freedoms. That my friends is why I so dislike hearing “Happy Memorial Day” or similar sentiments. We should be grateful, thankful so many have paid such a dear price to first win our independence from England, and who since then have continued to pay the ultimate price to maintain freedom, including those who fought in the Civil War, which led to what we now call Memorial Day.
Both in raw numbers, and the percentage of our population who were wounded or died the Civil War eclipses all of our other wars including WWII. It wasn’t just the Union that was torn apart during those years, but families. Some men, even brothers fought on opposite sides during that war. Like the Union itself, the wounds were deep and not all of them healed.
Now, we are in a new Civil War, or perhaps a flaring up of the one fought a hundred-fifty years ago. And from where I sit, it’s the losers of that war who refused to accept their loss to the point of creating a whole mythology of “northern aggression” and “The Lost Cause”, or rather their descendants (both actual and ideological) who have instigated this new round of fighting. While social media and politics had been the main battlefields there was actual violence again and again prior to the January 6 insurrection battle. And it WAS a battle. Violence continues including institutional violence – think LE and the disproportionate jailing and even killing of non whites for example. The thing is, January 6 wasn’t the only thing going with the white nationalism “Christian” soldier types. Other groups have engaged in armed protests in state capitols, and there have been plots to kidnap and kill various Democrats. Or people who simply didn’t back up Trump’s bullsh*t on some important things. Think Dr. Anthony Fauci for example.
It was happing right in front of people for years, but Charlottesville was the de factor declaration of a new war, or new battle of the old Civil War. People were shocked but not enough. Trump provided political cover and we know what that led to. It’s all out in the open now. And loyalties have been declared. The Republican Party which once fought for freedom for all, has become the opposite of that noble goal which led to its establishment.
So I again note that so many have given so much, and even laid down their lives to establish this nation and make it a force for freedom in the world. Are we perfect? Hell no! We have have been and in fact have had some big flaws – one in particular which is our Original Sin. Slavery. And so many died in a war that should never have been fought, and would never had been fought if not for slavery. As I already said the cost in life, limbs (and if you got shot in an arm or leg as was common it was usually amputated) was appalling.
Is it any wonder that at the time people felt a need, even a duty to honor the fallen? Decorating graves of Civil War dead, and perhaps even having a ceremony in a town/cemetery with quite a few of the fallen seemed (and was) the least people could do. To take a day out and remember. To weep, to honor and maybe even vow to help us become a better country. I for one can easily understand how a movement to have a national day to remember, and honor all the sacrifice, the lives lost due to battle could become an important annual event.
Decorating the graves of war dead began during the Civil War itself, and in the first years after its conclusion certain events have given rise to debate over who had the first “Memorial Day.” A credible case can be made the first major effort was one by a group of newly freed slaves in Charleston, SC who about a month after the end of the War took the remains of Union Soldiers that had been dumped into a mass grave and gave roughly 200 Union War dead proper burials in individual graves and held a dedication. Some credit southern ladies for starting the tradition of decorating the graves of Confederate troops, and even some of Union soldiers. In particular was a woman, Mary Ann Williams who was a Confederate Civil War widow who pushed the idea of a formal day of observance. The state of Georgia actually implemented her idea. As more towns in the south had a day of observance towns in the north followed suit. A town in NY state is often given credit for being the first to have established a specific day set aside starting at the end of the Civil War However, there was no national observance of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was first known. For the most part Decoration Day happened on different dates depending on the place.
Then, in 1868 something happened that turned a fair number of local events into something wide scale. At this point I want to briefly detour into the Grand Army of the Republic. If in some cemetery you’ve seen century old (or older) graves that have a small stone marker (almost always less than a foot high above ground level and four inches on each side) with the initials GAR running down it it means the person buried there was a member. Now the Grand Army of the Republic wasn’t an actual Army. It was a Veteran’s organization of Union Soldiers, Sailors and Marines and quickly established “Posts” in hundreds of communities in the north. It also quickly gained political clout, and is recognized as the most powerful lobbying group in the country during the latter part of the 19th century.
The point however is that by spring 1868 it was already, with hundreds of posts located in most every northern state known and respected. And already flexing political muscle. The G.A.R.’s second Commander, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for a national “Decoration Day” to be held on May 30 of that year. Logan picked the date because it didn’t commemorate any Civil War battle. Given the influence and reach of the G.A.R. even then Decoration Day was widely observed. It took a bit of time for it to become a truly national annual event but by 1890 every state had marked the day as an official day of observance.
General Logan himself was an interesting public figure. (Full-disclosure, my hometown is where he was from. When the tiny village of Brownsville burned to the ground the prominent and prosperous Logan family donated ten acres of their land to establish the new town which would be named Murphysboro.) Logan, like his father and the family were well known and respected throughout southern Illinois. However, the family had mixed views on slavery. John A. Logan was, prior to the Civil War a stone cold racist and was fine with slavery not only continuing but expanding to other states. As were many others in southern Illinois.
Although he’d returned to civilian life after the Mexican American War he could have gotten himself commissioned as an officer in the south – what would become the Confederacy. Logan had been a state representative and Congressman and had sponsored flat out racist legislation after all. Still, for all that he was passionate about the Union and preserving it was more important to him than anything. He and Grant were friends, and he of course was acquainted with although not buddies with Lincoln himself. When over in Williamson Country a vote was held to secede Logan put his and his family’s name on the line, and through the force of his will he got that and another such resolution rescinded. He also used his personal connections to have a small force of Union troops sent to the region to if necessary put down any uprising.
Basically, while he didn’t think slavery was worth going to war over, he DID think the preservation of the Union was. So, Logan wound up in the Army again when war broke out. He was considered among the best of the civilians turned high ranking (Col. and Gen.) in the Union Army before the war was over. Grant trusted him implicitly from the get-go. Since Logan took part in battles in the “west” he didn’t become well known as most of the attention was given to the eastern states.
The important thing is that Logan changed a great deal during the war. From racist he went to being an abolitionist! Between his Illinois connections and one of the core goals of the G.A.R., establishing the Republican Party agenda to give former slaves full rights including voting rights, and his command presence & political experience he was a natural choice to take over as Commander.
I gave an account of Logan’s transformation (no doubt his sister jumping in his sh&t for years about his racism and indifference to slavery influenced his dedicating his later years to making up for his sins) on both slavery and more importantly equal rights for former slaves for a reason. The very town he hailed from, which when I was growing up mostly venerated him is one he would no longer be proud to hail from. It’s solid Trump territory now. Even has a Congress Critter (a few years younger than me – he’s got an older sister who was a classmate and onetime friend of mine) who is a member of the Sedition Caucus. Yep, he voted to delay the certification when Congress reconvened after the riot, and the little pissant would do it again!
Think about that. A member of Congress, who hails from the town that produced a Civil War General who prior to the war was largely responsible for keeping our part of Illinois in the Union, and who would become a Republican leader (he was a VP candidate shortly before his death) AND is credited with getting what we now know as Memorial Day established as a national holiday would rather see us DIVIDED rather than united.
So, more than in the past I’m not only thankful this Memorial Day for all those who gave all they had to give, but insistent that people stop for a while and think, and I mean truly reflect on why we have it. And need it. I’m not saying don’t enjoy some of your three day weekend. But even if you don’t visit a cemetery and stop at some graves of the fallen, or attend a formal ceremony at least set aside a couple of hours to remember and give thanks.
And more importantly develop or renew your resolve to do all you can to ensure those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” did not do so in vain.