In the years following the Civil War, Americans struggled to grieve the loss of so many young men. Even while they were stitching the country back together politically, they were emotionally dealing with an astounding loss: over 600,000 dead.
Decoration Day was created to commemorate the dead soldiers and the deeds of valor from the war. It began as a day devoted specifically to the Civil War dead, but as time went on it became a time to remember soldiers from all wars.
By the time I was a young man several decades ago, Memorial Day (as Decoration Day had come to be known) was for cookouts, family gatherings, and going to the cemetery to place flowers and remember those of our family who had died.
I have always enjoyed being with family on these days and visiting the cemeteries to remember and recognize my departed ancestors. The visits to the cemetery become an occasion to repeat family stories. In a culture where we don’t take the time to sit around and talk as much as we used to, these opportunities to remember the narrative of our family are important. So much can be learned and reinforced through the remembering of the past.
No one in my family died in the Civil War or in any war since–at least no one I’ve found. The only members of my family who died while serving in the military are two men who died during the Revolutionary War, but that was so long ago and the paperwork is so difficult to find and document, I find it hard to feel certain about their connection to me.
But even though no one in my family died in battle, many of my ancestors have stories that mean something–at least to me. Many of them led lives of constant struggle and forward motion. Some used their time, energy and resources to serve the community. Some built wealth that they could pass along. Some touched me personally in one way or another.
This blog is one of the ways I perpetuate the stories. Through the writing of each blog post, I try to not only preserve and convey pieces of the past, but also to somehow capture their meaning and significance.
Whether you visit a cemetery or not, I hope you’re able to find some connection with your own past and some significance in its meaning this Memorial Day.
To read more about death in the Civil War and how it influenced American culture, you can read the recent bestseller, This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust.