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Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day, May 31, 2010

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“July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure - and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”

So begins a letter from Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers to his wife, written a week before the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the US Civil War. The Major wrote prodigiously to Sarah and she received more upbeat letters written in the days before and following his July 14th update from Washington D.C. But this letter became his most famous, mainly because of its inclusion in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary series, first aired in 1990. As with many other mementos of wars past, it has come to represent not just a man and the war in which he fought, but a nation's desire to seek something honorable and just from the loss of so many in battle over the past 235 years.

Today, May 31st, is Memorial Day in the United States, the day on which we honor those who have given their lives while serving during wartime in our nation’s military. Over the more than 140 years of its existence, the Memorial Day weekend has also come to represent the beginning of the summer season.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in Waterloo, New York in 1866. A decoration day of sorts occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in May 1865 at the site of a former Confederate prison camp, but Waterloo is given most of the credit for creating the day as we now know it. The village was home to General John Murray, who was a friend of General John Logan, the head of a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan pushed for a national observance on May 30th, a date in which no battles took place during the then-recent Civil War. The day was originally intended to honor those who died during that conflict, but was soon extended to include those who have paid the ultimate price in all the nation’s wars. The term Decoration Day was used because cemeteries were generally adorned with flags and flowers to honor the fallen. Although the term Memorial Day first appeared in print in 1882, it did not come into common use until the time of the Second World War in the 1940’s.

In 1968, the US Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. This created a three-day weekend, something that critics of the change point to as one of the reasons the holiday seems to have lost its meaning to so many Americans.

History is full of stories of men and women who showed unbelievable courage under fire even though they invited their own deaths in the process. While we rightly recognize these heroes, it is also important to remember those whose names have been lost to history but whose sacrifices were no less honorable. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, nearly every American had lost a family member, friend or co-worker. During two world wars, Americans again felt that ultimate sacrifice close at hand; as my father said of the neighborhood in which he grew up during the 1940's, “There were a lot of gold stars hanging in peoples’ windows by the end.”

The past 60 years have seen the general public in the United States become increasingly distant from the military. Even with combat taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan as I write this, many Americans personally know no one serving in the military. Our armed forces are smaller as a percentage of the population now than they have been since the end of the Revolutionary War and a draft has not existed for 37 years. Yet men and women from every walk of American life have their lives taken almost daily by war; some of their names will only be remembered by those who loved them. While we can debate the merits of any war, those who give their lives during it do so for us and for generations not yet born.

Lower Manhattan was still engulfed by smoke and dust in September, 2001 when National Public Radio's news program 'All Things Considered' aired a segment in which American college students were asked if they would consider joining the military to fight in what was not yet being called the War on Terror. One young man, apparently stunned by the question, responded that he would not because “I have plans for my life.” I thought of the hundreds of thousands of American men and women, many of them close to the respondent's age, who had their plans put on hold for all of eternity. Their journeys ended at places like Bunker Hill, New Orleans, Veracruz, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Normandy, Inchon and Khe Sahn. The first decade of the 21st century would add over 5,000 names to the list of those who have paid the ultimate price in the service of their nation. The true cost of these losses can never be measured. The best we can do is honor their sacrifice and keep it alive in our collective memory as a people.

In addition to the Americans who have died in service to our nation over the last 235 years, I ask that you also remember today those from around the world who have given all while fighting in common cause with our country. Most of the nations of Europe and many other countries around the globe have sacrificed not just to protect their own interests, but to ensure the continuance of our way of life. To them and their fallen go the thanks of a grateful nation.

Sullivan Ballou, the author of the letter which I quoted at the beginning of this episode, died two weeks after writing it from wounds received during the First Battle of Bull Run. It was never mailed, but was instead turned over to his family when his remains and a few belongings were returned to Rhode Island. Sarah Ballou, 24 years old and the mother of two sons in 1861, never remarried; she died in 1917 and is buried with her husband in Providence.

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