Nation can never repay those who lost their lives in war
By Gene Kemmeter
What did you do Monday, May 28? The day is officially designated as Memorial Day in the United States, a day to remember and honor those men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. But most people look at the day as the final day of the first three-day holiday weekend of the summer season, not a time to reflect on the sacrifice of one’s life for the nation.
Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday of May, was originally known as Decoration Day and popularly originated after the Civil War in 1868 when Gen. John A. Logan requested that the graves of Civil War veterans be decorated. That’s why many Memorial Day observances include the reading of Logan’s General Order to observe the day, and millions of U.S. flags mark the graves of veterans.
Actually, Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., when the New York Tribune reported that 10,000 blacks and white missionaries and teachers staged a parade at the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which the Confederates had converted into an outdoor prison during the final year of the war.
At least 257 Union captives died of disease at that prison and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. After the Confederates evacuated Charleston, black workmen reburied the Union dead and built a high fence around the cemetery, constructing an archway over an entrance inscribed with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
The Civil War was the bloodiest war for U.S. soldiers, with an estimated 750,000 fatalities, compared to 405,399 in World War II. The Civil War came at a time the nation was unprepared for the consequences of war, when both the North and the South lacked plans to deal with battlefield dead or captured combatants. Fatalities were often buried in unmarked or mass graves without identification, the victims never returning to their hometowns.
The memory of the Civil War resulted in citizens observing Decoration Day with parades, memorial programs and picnics. The entry of the U.S. into World War I produced more fallen heroes, and the holiday gained importance with the memory reinforced by the tragedy of World War II, when many relatives, neighbors and friends lost their lives.
Since then, the impact of war in the U.S. was reduced after the citizen army created by the military service draft was eliminated in 1973 and the Vietnam War ended more than four decades ago. The professional army that replaced it impacted fewer families, but the tragedies of war continue to cause too many fatalities.
And Memorial Day has lost some of its meaning, looked upon more as a vacation from work than commemorating those who died in military service to their country. The nation can never truly repay the debt owed to its fallen heroes who sacrificed their lives for the ideals of equality, justice and opportunity for future generations. Decorating and cleaning graves is one way to do so.