Few people know about my fascination with the Civil War. I don’t talk about it. Guess I figure most are not that interested in American history.
But here’s Memorial Day again.
I read about that war, listen to programs about it, watch movies about it, but I don’t talk about it. Since I was 16 years old, I’ve been trying to process the conflict, issues, traumas, the sad stories I’ve heard that came from the Civil War era. (I had a wonderful American History teacher in high school.)
This war happened because southern states were seceding from the union, one right after another, calling themselves the Confederate States of America. This followed the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in November 1860. The Confederates wanted to protect their way of life, which included slavery. The fighting broke out in the spring of 1861.
No one expected the war to last more than a few months. It became painful and bloody until the end of the war in April 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to Ulysses S. Grant.
Neither the North nor the South was prepared for such losses of men. Both sides left dead bodies where they fell. Others succumbed to disease, famine, or were imprisoned. These men had families and friends. They had hopes and dreams, girlfriends, mothers, sisters, brothers, fathers, children.
According to David Hacker of the New York Times, approximately 750,000 soldiers fell in the Civil War (North and South combined).
Following the Civil War, in May 1868, General John Logan issued a decree that May 30 should become "Decoration Day," as he dubbed it, for those killed in the Civil War. That would be the day that Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead.
According to his wife, Logan had seen women’s groups across much of the South gathering informally to decorate the graves of Confederate dead. In many areas, organized groups of women, such as the Ladies Memorial Associations had formed to encourage others to honor and remember those who had died in the war.
More than a hundred years later, this day would be called Memorial Day, in memory of the fallen soldiers. But where I live in Arkansas, I hear people speak of Decoration Day. Meeting together, cleaning, decorating graves in a local cemetery, and a picnic might go together. (I’m noticing that in response to the coronavirus pandemic, some groups have cancelled the usual group effort this May.)
For further information, check out this article at History.com: 8 Things You May Not Know About Memorial Day.
Before the Civil War, national cemeteries did not exist. Dead bodies were usually intact, laid-out, grieved over, buried near a church or in a family cemetery.
No plan had ever been made regarding those who fell during a battle. They just fell and were left where they fell. Nor was there an organized way in place for identifying the fallen. (Dog tags had not yet been invented.)
You can see how there were many unknown soldiers. After the war, many bodies and bones were retrieved from fields.
I have walked the grounds of Vicksburg National Cemetery. I remember how solemn and quiet I became. So many unmarked graves.
Freedom is not free.
Presently, America has 142 national military cemeteries.
This morning, I watched a white-haired lady in the front of the church stand and put her hand over her heart while America, America was being sung. The entire congregation (obedient to Covid-19 guidelines) followed her lead and stood with her. It felt good.
We have a grandson who joined the military this year. It just makes me more awake to the fact that war is real.
This is the weekend set aside to remember, to honor our brave heroes.
Let us remember the fallen and let us live victorious lives….
P.S. I thank you, my kind readers, for understanding about honoring the past and those who lived it. I welcome any comments.
Martin Cemetery; Norfork, AR. Photographed by Pat Durmon, May 24, 2020.