Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Remembering Decoration Day

A postcard I borrowed from the collection of Russell Hughes, of Orlando, Florida. Hughes was captured during the World War II, Battle of the Bulge and served five months in a German prison camp. He and I both like this postcard because it shows a Union and a Confederate soldier wrapped together in the American flag.

It may have begun in the South, as some believe, when women, mourning their husbands and sons who died in the Civil War, set aside one day as Decoration Day, to honor the graves of their dead. There were a lot of young men to mourn.

Records of the time are not as accurate as they might be today, but it is believed that about 250,000 Northern soldiers were killed and about 350,000 Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War. That total of 600,000 had a huge impact on a nation of just 31 million people. Even today, that total is greater than the number of all who have died in all of our wars in more than two hundred years.

By 1868, Decoration Day in the South had become Remembrance Day or Memorial Day in the North. On May 5th of that year, General John A. Logan drew up an order that May 30th should be set aside for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

Many states in the South weren't too keen on that order and continued to set aside their own Decoration Days, not particularly liking General Logan's tone. Since my father is from Dixie (though his grandfather enrolled as a Union soldier in Baltimore, something the family in Birmingham didn't talk much about) I can see both sides.

It took until World War I for most of these United States to get together on marking a day, not to celebrate, but to remember and honor, all Americans who died in defense of their country.

In his 1868 orders General Logan writes: "Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

And yet we do, sometimes, forget. As children, my sister and I knew a boy who had never met his father, an officer killed in the last month of the last battle of World War II. What did we know of his sacrifice? A neighbor's father was bound to a wheelchair from wounds he received in that same war. We didn't understand and were thus afraid to talk with him.

In my family, we also had a young man who, as an eighteen-year-old Marine in Vietnam, suffered a devastating injury in a firefight and who died forty years later from his wounds. His life was filled with pain. He never really had much of a chance to live.

All of these young men, and now young women too, go out when their country calls. As my father did. As your father and grandfather did. As our soldiers have for generations. Casualty numbers aren't just numbers: they represent loved ones suspended in time. People we've lost. Soldiers who were young and happy and who then were gone.

I hope we'll all pause a minute on the Memorial Day ahead to remember that the day is not just about barbeques, and ESPN, and racing, and swimming parties. Of course we should do these things: we're free and secure because of the sacrifices so many have made. They are our nation's heroes.

And, as General Logan wrote more than a century ago, we should let: " ... no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

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