I often struggle to write about Memorial Day. It is about more than barbecues, picnics, and the kick-off to summer. It is not a time to debate whether our country was right or wrong to send our children to war. No, it is a solemn day to reflect upon those who have died in service to our country, for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice four our nation.
I am reminded of my dad and uncles who served in World War II. None of them talked about their war experiences—I am sure that those experiences were horrifying for them as young men. When I knew them they all seemed older than the uncles who had not served. There was something about their eyes that was not present in my other uncles' eyes—that they had seen humanity at its worst, and survived. It was an emptiness, an emptiness that has been called the thousand yard stare. No matter their age, it was still there, maybe not as hard edged as it was when they first came home, but it was with them, in some small way, until the day they died.
My great-grandfather was a soldier during the Civil War, and passed away when my mom was just six years old in 1932, some 35 years before I came into this world. His obituary reads like a history book of Civil War battles:
Mr. [William] Posten an honest upright, conscientious man, a kind and affectionate husband, a kind and loving father, a good neighbor, a true and loyal American citizen. He was a perfect type of American manhood. He leaves to mourn his loss a sorrowing wife, seven living children and a number of grandchildren, also a sister, Mrs. Sarah Jacoby of Millville (Wisconsin) He was member of Co. D., 51st Penn. V.I. He took part in many of the most famous engagements in which the army of the Potomac participated. He enlisted Oct. 13, 1861 and was mustered out July 27, 1865. His services included the disastrous battle of Fredericksburg and the operations of the 9th corps under Brownside in the Shenandoah Valley. He fought with his regiment in the Wilderness at Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor and during the siege of the Petersburg his command formed a part of the troops who charged the Confederate works following the famous mine explosions. Mr. Posten took part in the charge on the Confederates in front of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, which resultd in the capture of the outer works and the rapid flight of Lee's army and Jefferson Davis from Petersburg and Richmond and with his regiment followed Lee to the end at Appomattox.
The horrors he must have seen—just 17 years old at the battle of Fredericksburg
, and all of 21 during the final battles of the war. Memorial Day, at that time Decoration Day, grew out of the carnage we know as the Civil War, a war that was anything but civil. New weapons and old tactics made the Civil War a hellish nightmare for the soldiers who fought in it. While the practice of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers is an ancient custom
... and soldiers' graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier's grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there.Though not for Union soldiers, there is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers' graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers' graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Decoration Day was not observed as a national holiday until after World War I, when the South began to celebrate on the same day as the North as the day no longer was just to memorialize Civil War dead. As time went on the name Decoration Day
began to fall out of fashion, being replaced by Memorial Day entirely shortly after WWII ended. It did not become an official federal Holiday until 1968 and the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
Today, much of the meaning of Memorial Day is lost, as I'll discuss below. Far too many view it as just the official kick-off to summer.
In 2011 the National World War II Museum commissioned a poll to find out just what Americans knew about Memorial Day:
Eighty percent of all Americans confess to having “little” or “some” knowledge of the holiday. Just 20 percent claim to be “very familiar” with the day’s purpose, which is to honor those who have died while fighting the nation’s wars.
To me the best way to sum up Memorial Day is not with a cookout, baseball game, or picnic. It is with this:
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It is my solemn hope that someday the list of war dead that we memorialize stops growing. That someday, Memorial Day is but a reminder of the brutal wars we have fought—that no new wars ever start, so that no young men have to go to war and come back with something different in their eyes. That there are no more Flanders Fields.