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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Thoughts on Memorial Day

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So went 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. 

This Monday, May 28th, will be 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, Memorial Day 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 on 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 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 around the time of the Second World War.

In 1968, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. This created a three-day weekend, doubtless one of the reasons why 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.”

In the past 60 years, the general public in the United States has become increasingly distant from the military. Even with combat taking place in 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, than they have been since the end of the Revolutionary War and a draft has not existed for 39 years. Yet men and women from every walk of American life die almost daily in war; some of their names will only be remembered by those who love them. While we can debate the merits of any war, those who give their lives fighting in it did 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 service to 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 237 years, I ask that you also remember 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 we heard at the beginning of this episode, died at the First Battle of Bull Run two weeks after writing it. 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 next to her husband in Providence.


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Grant Davies

Matthew Dattilo said...

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Grant Davies said...

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