Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. What most will never know are the true origins of the observance. In a Dispatch from Nerd Land, (what my friends call it when I share some historical fact learned from good history books), I became enamored with historian David W. Blight who has written no less than eight books on the Civil War. It was a topic that held little interest for me until frustrated research of my family tree was resolved through an historical epiphany in reading his books. More later on that.
The original Decoration Day began during the Civil War among freed slaves and other black American families – as a remembrance of the veterans of all races who fought for their liberation. These freed slaves of Charleston, South Carolina, or “Freedmen”, as they were then commonly known, had cleaned and landscaped the war burial grounds, built an enclosure and erected an arch that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course”. Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen gathered on May 1, 1865 to honor the fallen – including 3,000 schoolchildren who were newly enrolled in the freedmen’s schools. These were black children being educated for the first time in the history of our bruised and scarred nation. Historian David Blight described the day:
“What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Pretty heady stuff and honestly, I had no idea until I was hungry for the information. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic in his General Order #11 and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization comprised of Civil War Union veterans. It was only through the impeccable records of the Grand Army of the Republic that my personal quest to learn my own very honorable family history became possible.
In General Order #11, General Logan stated the following:
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. 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.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from his honor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
General Logan was a man who knew how to wax poetic. Good poetry there, though.
In 1971, Congress passed The Uniform Holiday Act, creating a three-day weekend for all federally observed holidays, including Memorial Day. Sadly, when laws like this are passed, the Law of Unintended Consequences takes over. Instead of keeping with the tradition of remembering those died in the service of our country, Memorial Day has become Memorial Day Weekend. It marks the start of summer. It marks the beginning of the family vacation season. It marks parties. It marks a huge sale date for big box stores. It marks the day when it’s socially acceptable to wear white without being accused of a fashion faux pas.
One of my favorite commentators and fellow nerds, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes shared some following facts on his program this morning:
- This year marks the 11th straight Memorial Day this country will observe while waging war – the longest such period in our history.
- 122 soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year alone.
- 164 active duty National Guard and Reserve troops committed suicide in 2011
- Thanks to a change in policy, the families of soldiers who commit suicide receive a condolence note from the President, but only if the suicide occurs in theatre.
- 1 in 10 of the nation’s non-elderly veterans don’t have health insurance and aren’t using the VA health care system.
- There are 1.3 million uninsured veterans and if the Affordable Care Act survives its challenge before the Supreme Court, they will be moved to a system of access for the first time in our history.
No one in my family, to my knowledge, had ever traced our genealogy until I tackled it two years ago with the assistance of my sister, Barbie. It was not an easy task, given we share the 37th most common surname in the country…
My Great-Great Grandfather, John Baker had been nearly impossible to trace. Given that he would have been 28 years old at the time, I began my search of numerous Civil War databases and was gifted with the knowledge that my family had come down on the right side of history. Accessing records of the Grand Army of the Republic, I learned that John Baker, born near what is now known as Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1833, was the son of Moses Baker and Margaret Flory Baker. His father was nearly 60 and his mother a mere 13 at the time of their marriage. When Moses Baker moved his family to Iowa and subsequently died, the family farm was left to be run by Margaret, mother of one son and 5 daughters. Young John assumed the role of the man of the family and worked hard to assist his mother in creating a meager subsistence for all. In 1860, a 27 year-old John found himself enamored of a young woman new to the area, the beautiful Maggie Hillan, daughter of a cooper who had just moved his family to Iowa from southern Illinois. John convinced Maggie to marry him and she immediately became pregnant with their first child. Just a few months later, the Civil War began and President Lincoln requested all able-bodied men of any age serve the Union. Historical records show John Baker, along with most most of the men in this rural area, would answer President Lincoln’s call. He joined Iowa’s 39th Infantry in early 1862, mere days before Maggie would ultimately give birth. Private John Baker marched off to war without ever seeing his child and never knowing if he would someday. We learned he fought bravely through many battles and did so walking all the way from Iowa to Savannah’s famed ‘March to the Sea’ under General Sherman. John then followed General Sherman in the Carolinas Campaign where he marched 425 miles in 50 days. A short time later, President Lincoln was assassinated, the armistice was signed, Lee surrendered at Appomattox and the war was officially over. A nation was left in ruins and a weary 31 year-old John Baker was mustered out of the Army in Washington D.C. in June of 1865. A month later, he returned home to his beloved Maggie and met nearly 4 year-old Sarah Olive Baker for the first time. “Ollie”, as he would call her, would remain close to her father for the remainder of his life that lasted until the start of World War I. John and Maggie went on to have six more children and John became a horse and livestock trader in the area, known for his fair dealings in the community. Their third child, John Albert Baker is my great-grandfather and he too became a horse and livestock trader in the same rural community. He married a Civil War orphan by the name of Ida Mae Gilbert. John Albert shares his father’s legacy for honesty and fair dealing. My grandfather, Ralph Baker, was the fifth born, but only the second surviving child of John Albert and Ida Mae. Grandpa worked for the county and maintained the roads in and around their community. Grandpa Ralph had a reputation for being very honest, good-natured and quick-humored. He and Grandma raised three fine sons in that same little town, my dad being the middle and most troublesome of the three, of course. My own father was a proud Marine who served this country during the Korean War – I refuse to refer to anything where men spilled their blood as a ‘conflict’.
It was through the military records that I was able to piece together my life story, to understand my heritage by understanding the character of those who came before me. This research has helped me to understand that my Liberalism isn’t the result of anything but a family heritage of treating others fairly and wanting equality for all. It is a gift I warmly embrace.
So, on this Memorial Day, I will not vacation,
barbeque or worry about shopping or fashion trends. On this Memorial Day, I will remember those who served our nation. I will remember those who took their own lives, in or out of the theatre of war. I will remember those veterans who are hungry and homeless and have no access to health care. I will remember those innocent civilians of other lands who were killed as a matter of “collateral damage”. I will remember and write about all of these things in the hopes that someday, a thinking nation will understand the waste and futility of war. I will remember and write about these things knowing that wars are no longer fought for high ideals, like the end of slavery, or the bumper sticker mantra of “freedom”. Modern wars are now fought for power and profit. I will remember and write about these things in the hope that our nation will see that the fighting and dying is never done by the war profiteers, but by the children of the least among us, who now do so because joining the military was an available job when the war-profiteering plutocrats sent all of our jobs overseas just to increase their profit margin from 10 billion dollars in the first fiscal quarter to 10.5 billion dollars in the second fiscal quarter.
I write to remember. I write to tell others the truth.