Decoration Day

Me taking notes at the family plot of my great-great-great grandfather, Henry Martin Harris, in Hagerstown, Indiana.

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.

Me, my son Max and my mom at the same family plot in Hagerstown.

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.

Me at the same family plot.

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.

Me showing my son Alex the tombstone of Cornelius Harris, who was featured in a previous blog post entitled "Insanity and the Election of 1856."

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7 Responses to Decoration Day

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    This blog you’ve created is a true act of love, Kevin. You’ve brought your ancestors back into the present and made them real to a generation of people who would have never known a thing about them — including your sons, who are getting a vivid picture of where they came from. I look forward to reading these posts.

    • Thank you, Charles. It is a labor of love. I get a lot of enjoyment out of finding new information. And I’ve been enjoying writing about what I’ve learned. I appreciate your interest and involvement.

      Both my sons won third place awards (in their respective grades) for the social studies test this past year. While this probably foretells a life of poverty and low-paying jobs, it gives me hope that my family history files will have a caretaker or two after I’m gone.

      Maybe someday I’ll let one of my sons write a blog post on here.

  2. Priya says:

    Though we in India take much pride in tradition, ancestry and history, we become too reverential, making our past of more value than it actually is. The fact that we do not have any documentation to name of, there is no proof, really, of how things happened in reality. Visiting your blog always amazes me as to how precise (or almost) your information is, and how factual.
    You are giving your children the treat very few parents are able to provide — tradition and due respect.

    • Thank you, Priya. It is an interesting balance. I want to remain truthful to history the way it was (as much as I can discover it). I want to honor my family. But I also want to present real human beings in real life situations. This means dealing with the dark side of people too. I haven’t written too much yet that shows the darker side, but I’ve tried not to be overly laudatory either.

      In my experience human beings are complex. Life is complicated. Reflecting on this truth as I study my family’s history helps equip me for the reality of it in my own life. And hopefully it also teaches my sons and helps them mature into well-rounded adults.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Another beautiful post. I haven’t met many people who still visit the cemeteries, but like you and your family, it is a tradition I’ve always known.

    It’s such a unique experience, and to be honest, I haven’t realized just how unique until I read this post. Our visits were, and are, full of tears, led by my grandmother when she was alive, and now my mother. The reason is that one of the graves we visit is that of my grandmother’s first daughter, Myra, who passed away at just 7 months old.

    You’ve inspired me to write about this, and I will someday. One of the most powerful of these cemetery visits was when I was a little girl, and I heard my grandmother say for the first time, through a face of tears, how sad she was that she hadn’t been allowed to engrave “Myra” onto the tombstone. The rules at the time, created under heavy influence of the Catholic church, forced her to engrave a more “acceptable, Catholic” name onto the stone, “Mary.”

    I thought for a few moments. My little girl brow furrowed. And I thought I had something amazing to tell my Nana. My heart raced faster and I kept checking the stone and checking things in my head, because I wanted to be sure I got it right before I shared this good news.

    Fearful, I said, “Nana? How do you spell Myra?”

    She looked confused. And told me, “M-Y-R-A.”

    “Look, Nana,” I said, running my tiny hand with a wool glove on it across the stone. “All the letters in ‘Myra’ are right here. M-Y-R-A.”

    That was the one time I actually saw her bright blue eyes light up and twinkle, her face smile at the gravesite.

    Thank you for bringing back that memory.

    • What a great story! In my experience, sharing stories about the past and visiting cemeteries and other places significant to our family’s history have provided many opportunities for connections with others in the family. Researching your family history takes a lot of time and effort–there are often long dry spells where not much happens–but every once in a while, learning more about your family history opens up a whole new level of relationship with someone you love.

      It’s a powerful moment–to make someone you love smile. How wonderful that you got to share that moment with your Nana.

  4. Robert Alan (Bob) Rentfrow says:

    My name is Robert Rentfrow. I am a descendant of Turpin Rentfrow. I live in Miami,Oklahoma. Turpin is my g,g,g,great (4th )great grandfather. My l8nage goes me, Billy Everett Rentfrow, Clyde Everett Rentfrow, James Franklin Rentfrow, Jonas Rentfrow, Moses Rentfrow, Turpin Rentfrow, Rev. Moses, William Renfro, John Renfro, and without proper definite proof Robert Rentfree, Symon Ruefe (Renfo), James Baron or Earl of Renfrew, K8ng James 5th of Scotland and up line through the Kings if factual. Of course last names may not be entirely accurate past Moses or maybe his father Turpin. I’m very interested in gaining heritage facts and etc. hopefully in a form that is accessible to later generations. If you have communicated with Harlan Rentfrow he is my father’s cousin’s son. So we are 1st cousins once removed. He and at times with my mother have done research into our family. My mother passed several years ago and my oldest sister is in the act of moving and clearing out the old family home since 1951. Will be digging out old family pictures and will surely have many needing identification. I appreciate your post and look forward to hearing from you.

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