Cel­e­brate those who died to save our free­dom

Record Observer - - News - By RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

Spring is fi­nally here! Af­ter a rough win­ter, we all have been an­tic­i­pat­ing the long-awaited spring time and the of­fi­cial day for open­ing area pools — Me­mo­rial Day! A day off of work and school, where fam­ily and friends gather to­gether for an out­door pic­nic of hot dogs and ham­burg­ers. But is to­day’s Me­mo­rial Day cel­e­bra­tion much dif­fer­ent from that of our an­ces­tors, or has modern cul­ture pulled us away from its true mean­ing? Tie into your day the hon­or­ing of those who have gone on be­fore us by plac­ing fresh spring flow­ers onto graves of fallen sol­diers and you have a day of dec­o­ra­tion that dates back to that of the mid 1800s — yes, with pic­nics and all!

For fam­i­lies in this time pe­riod, a day of memo­ri­al­iza­tion de­vel­oped into a sig­nif­i­cant hol­i­day, be­cause nearly ev­ery house­hold in Amer­ica ex­pe­ri­enced a loss due to the Civil War. Let us pause here for a mo­ment to un­der­stand this war and why it com­pletely changed our gov­ern­ment and Amer­ica’s per­cep­tion when faced with a loss, and in turn was the cre­ation of one of the most hon­or­able of days — Me­mo­rial Day.

For the first time, Amer­i­cans ex­pe­ri­enced ex­ten­sive casualties dur­ing the Civil War. This gen­er­ated an over­whelm­ing in­abil­ity to cope with great loss as it wasn’t a wit­nessed peace­ful process that most of­ten oc­curred prior to the war.

Sol­diers were laid to rest in mass graves on or near the bat­tle­fields where they fell. Lo­cal news­pa­pers and fel­low sol­diers were the only meth­ods of in­form­ing fam­ily mem­bers that their loved ones were “miss­ing.” There were no sur­vivor ben­e­fits at this time for fam­ily mem­bers of in­di­vid­u­als that gave their lives to this coun­try. Prior to the war, there was no vet­er­ans ceme­ter­ies, and Ar­ling­ton National Ceme­tery was not in ex­is­tence. There was no lo­ca­tion for fam­ily mem­bers to visit or place flow­ers. Nor was there a national day of recog­ni­tion to honor those who had fallen.

The Civil War truly re­de­fined the way Amer­i­cans view death. Due to this new re­al­ity, gov­ern­ment poli­cies and pro­ce­dures were im­ple­mented and the gen­eral need to cope with a loss was re­de­fined. Our gov­ern­ment re­sponded through the cre­ation of vet­er­ans ceme­ter­ies, sur­vivor ben­e­fits, and an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process for those who were lost at war and away from home. Ul­ti­mately, it brought about the cre­ation of a national day to re­flect on the lives of the in­di­vid­u­als who fought for our free­dom.

The re­mem­brance day we have come to know as Me­mo­rial Day was some­thing that be­gan years fol­low­ing the war.

South­ern­ers had mul­ti­ple dec­o­ra­tion days for hon­or­ing their Civil War vet­er­ans. Just a few of the many are: May 10th, the an­niver­sary of Stone Wall Jack­son’s death; April 26th, the day of final Con­fed­er­ate sur­ren­der; and June 3rd, Jefferson Davis’s birth­day. As for the North­ern­ers, Gen­eral John Lo­gan, Com­man­der of the Grand Army of the Repub­lic, es­tab­lished in 1868 a for­mal spring day for the dec­o­rat­ing of fallen sol­diers. May 30th was es­tab­lished as Dec­o­ra­tion Day, the fore­run­ner of Me­mo­rial Day. Even though the gen­eral con­cept is the same, in some ar­eas in the South, this day is still ob­served on a day other than the last Mon­day in May.

The for­mal prac­tice of what we know as Me­mo­rial Day ac­tu­ally started in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, by a small group of South­ern­ers. Dur­ing the last year of the war, an open air prison was es­tab­lished for cap­tured Union sol­diers at a place called Planters Race Course.

About 260 Union sol­diers died at this prison and were buried in a mass grave just be­hind the grand­stands of the race track. In Fe­bru­ary of 1865, af­ter hold­ing out to the bit­ter end, the South­ern­ers evac­u­ated Charleston and the Union army moved in. The few South­ern­ers that still re­mained in the city were free slaves and loyal to the Union army. They col­lec­tively came to­gether and rein­terred each of those 260 Union sol­diers into in­di­vid­ual graves. None of them were prop­erly named due to a lack of dog tags. This team of South­ern­ers went on to build a large white fence sur­round­ing these graves and in­cluded an arch­way for the en­trance, and the ceme­tery was named Mar­tyrs of the Race Course. On May 1st, upon its com­ple­tion, a huge pa­rade was held on the race track with an es­ti­mated 10,000 peo­ple in at­ten­dance. “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” and “Amer­ica the Beau­ti­ful” were sung by chil­dren choirs and scrip­ture read by a se­ries of cler­gy­men. Af­ter the pa­rade they all broke up and went into the cen­ter of the race track and did what most of us do on Me­mo­rial Day — held pic­nics.

Un­for­tu­nately there were no pools to be opened dur­ing this time frame, but I would imag­ine that if there were, they’d be opened in cel­e­bra­tion of the lives each of those Union sol­diers gave for that small group of South­ern­ers’ free­dom. As you bite down into your ham­burger this Me­mo­rial Day, take a mo­ment to give thanks to all of those who gave their life for our free­dom over the many years since and dur­ing the Civil War.

Amaz­ing as it is, modern day cel­e­bra­tion is not that dif­fer­ent from that of our an­ces­tors: pic­nics and cel­e­bra­tory toasts to the ones who gave their lives for that which we of­ten take too lightly ... our free­dom.

PHOTO BY MIKE DAVIS

Centreville Ro­tary’s Flags for He­roes are dis­played at Ch­e­sa­peake Col­lege, the cor­ner of U.S. Route 50 and Md. Route 213, for Me­mo­rial Day week­end 2015. The Ro­tary is plan­ning an­other dis­play this year.

RYAN HELFEN­BEIN

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