Tag Archives: Memorial Day

The Civil War Origins of Memorial Day

Three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans—the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)—established “Decoration Day” as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead. It is believed that the last Monday in May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

However, springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places as early as 1866. On April 25 of that year, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in the battle of Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed by the sight of these bare graves, the women placed flowers on them as well.

MacEnany.inddIn 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.

150 years later, in honor of the Civil War origins of Memorial Day, we present an illuminating conversation with Brian McEnany, author of For Brotherhood and Duty: The Civil War History of the West Point Class of 1862:

Why did you feel particularly drawn to the West Point Class of 1862?
I was initially drawn to this class because it graduated 100 years before my own. While researching old musty cadet records and books at the archives at West Point for a reunion project, I became interested in Civil War politics and the cadet life of this class. I found stories and records of an extraordinary group of young men. Not finding much written about West Point classes after the start of the Civil War, I decided to write a book to fill that gap in history.

What was the most surprising thing you uncovered about this unique group of soldiers?
That is a hard question to answer. Regular army promotions were very slow during the war. There were questions raised in my mind about why this class did not have more transfers into volunteers to increase their chances for promotion. Secondly, the reputation of the Military Academy suffered greatly because of the large number of resignations of southern cadets—not a lot of people know that.

Can you talk a bit about why so many cadets from this class felt they had to resign from West Point before graduation?
Lincoln’s election followed by multiple changes in the superintendent and the commandant, resignations of officer instructors, as well as cadets led half this class to resign by the end of the summer of 1861. Their reasons were rooted in very strong state allegiances, colored mostly by friends, family, and politicians who appointed them as well as other cadets from the same state. It left little room for independent thought on the matter. Their letters were particularly poignant. One cadet from another class wrote to his mother that he resigned because he couldn’t sign his name to the oath of allegiance to the Union—he felt no one from the South could.

How did resignation like that affect the remaining cadets?
While they continued to focus on academics in preparation for graduation, their class motto, “Joined in a Common Cause,” shows they were strongly committed to the restoration of the Union.

Do you think the confusion and desolation of war may have led to their stories being overlooked?
I’ve found that most books and articles about the Civil War at West Point only focus on members of the May and June classes of 1861. Books about the other classes (1862–65) have not been written. My book is the first one published about another class that graduated during the war.

Can you talk a bit about the service records of the various cadets throughout the war?
The hardest task was to track the actual units they were assigned to—something that is not carried in their personnel records. I researched microfilm files of old newspaper articles and unit muster reports and found cadet, mid-career, and obituary pictures before I could write a biography for each member of the class. Promotions were very slow. Only the engineers and ordnance officers made captain during the war. The rest remained first lieutenants with the exception of four that went into volunteer service. One rose to Major General (Ranald Mackenzie), one was awarded the Medal of Honor (George Gillespie) many years later, one ex-member (Henry Farley) fired the first shot at Fort Sumter, and one classmate (William Bartlett) at the end of the war took the surrender of the last Confederate units in the eastern theater.

Who do you think was the standout from the class and why?
Ranald Mackenzie for sure. He graduated first in the class and rose to the rank of Major General US Volunteers during the war. He was in the right place at the right time; picked to lead an infantry regiment, he made a name for himself. Even Grant called him “a most promising officer.” Stern disciplinarian, an able tactical leader, brave to the point of recklessness; he was wounded six times during the war. He became a brigade commander, then commander of a cavalry division in the Army of the James. That division became part of Sheridan’s command during the Shenandoah Campaign and Lee’s Retreat. Mackenzie became more renowned after the Civil War. This was the Mackenzie that chased the Apaches into Mexico, and a 1950s TV show called Mackenzie’s Raiders even touted his exploits. He likely would have outshone Custer in history if he had lived long enough, but he died early. Others in the class were equally brave; 24 of the 28 were brevetted for gallantry, and one was awarded the Medal of Honor.

From these accounts, were you able to tell if any of these classmates felt remorse for attacking their fellow cadets during the war? Or was their dedication to their cause more important?
There were several incidents where classmates faced classmates on the battlefield. Sometimes, they were unaware of the other’s presence. At other times, they knew. Virginian James Dearing, an artillery man who commanded the guns in Pickett’s division, fired at Tully McCrea and John Egan at Gettysburg. At the end of the war, Mackenzie found Dearing lying, mortally wounded, in a hospital in Lynchburg just after Lee surrendered and made sure he was well taken care of. Morris Schaff ran into others after the war and wrote that there was no animosity shown. The bottom line is that I do not think they carried any bad feelings with them—the brotherhood endured.

What is the biggest thing you hope people take away from For Brotherhood and Duty?
For Brotherhood and Duty is all about memories, personal relationships and experiences.  What I hope is that people will remember those stories so that the next time they visit a battlefield they recall a real person and his story about that particular campaign or battle.

Today, We Remember

Memorial Day

As we take this Memorial Day to remember those who gave their lives to protect and defend our country, we wanted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the holiday that takes the time to reflect upon and appreciate the contributions of our armed forces.

The History:

Today, Memorial Day honors all veterans, but the holiday was originally called Decoration Day, and was created in reverence to those who lost their lives in the Civil War. General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s group born out of the Cvil War, first declared the holiday in 1868, proclaiming:

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or Memorial Day Propagandaotherwise 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. . . .

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 hishonor; 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.

Memorial Day Propaganda5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Decoration Day in 1868. After World War I, Decoration Day was re-designated to honor the fallen American soldiers who died fighting in any U.S. wars. Memorial Day, as it came to be known, was only officially recognized as a national holiday in 1971, and is now observed on the last Monday of May each year.

The Traditions:

  • When raising the American flag on Memorial Day, it is to be raised quickly to full-mast, and then lowered slowly and solemnly to half-mast. At noon, the flag is to be raised to full staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country, and the full-staff position represents the raising of their memory, and a commitment to not to let their sacrifice be in vain.

American Flag Memorial Day A young boy holds a Poppy in Montreal, Wednesday, November 7, 2012.  THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes.

  • Many American’s think of the British people wearing red poppies on Armistice Day (November 11, which coincides with our American Veteran’s Day), but the memorial red poppy originated in the U.S. and are a traditional decoration for Memorial Day. Inspired by the famous World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael wrote a poem of her own:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

Moina was the first to wear a poppy in remembrance, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. A Frenchwoman traveling to the U.S., heard of the custom, and began selling artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. The tradition soon spread to other European countries, and in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies.

  • Many cities and towns across the U.S. hold Memorial Day parades. Ironton, Ohio, puts on the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. The first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since.
  • In 2000, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act,” for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or commemorating as they choose at 3 pm on Memorial Day.

As some families gather to remember a relative’s service, or others gather for Memorial Day parades, cookouts, or picnics, please take a moment today to remember those who lost their lives in service to all of us, and those who continue to sacrifice for our country every day.

Memorial Day: General of the Armies John J. Pershing Salutes His Fellow Soldiers

My Life before the World War, 1860–1917: A Memoir  by General of the Armies John J. Pershing Edited and with an Introduction by John T. Greenwood

In celebration of Memorial Day, below is an excerpt from the memoir of the revered General John J. Pershing (1860–1948) who was the only soldier besides George Washington to be promoted t the highest rank in the U.S. Army—General of the Armies. This excerpt includes the farewell message he wrote to the Army when he retired on his 64th birthday.

Having [more than three] years to go before reaching the age of sixty-four, when retirement from active service is compulsory, I was then appointed Chief of Staff of the army [on 13 May 1921]. There was some question whether the position was commensurate with the rank of General, which had been conferred on me by Congress, but I was keen to have it. We had never had and had not then, a sound, up-to-date organization for national defense, and it seemed to me that I could in no better way repay my country for the trust it had placed in me and the signal honors it had conferred upon me than to devote the last years of my active service to the establishment of such a system.
My sixty-fourth birthday, September 13, 1924, was a sad day for me. I was loath to sever the ties of nearly forty years’ service under the flag. My feelings were expressed in the following farewell message to the Army:
My Comrades:
No words seem adequate to express to you the conflicting emotions that I feel upon reaching the date which officially marks the termination of my active service. Our experiences together have been varied. We have withstood the same hardships and shared the same pleasures. We have faced discouragements and rejoiced over victories.
Today, the recollections that swiftly pass in review fill my heart with a deep sense of gratitude for the loyal service and warm appreciation of the sincere devotion to country of the patriotic officers and men with whom it has been my good fortune to be associated during the fleeting years of my army life. It is my proud privilege, in parting, to say of the men of all ranks who have borne arms under the flag that none have more earnestly wished peace, yet in defense of right none have ever been imbued with loftier purpose nor more completely consecrated to the maintenance of our ideals.
My esteem for them and my admiration for their achievements continue to increase with the passing of time. The inspiration of their exalted conception of citizenship and their fulfillment of its obligations should ever assure the preservation of our institutions. The glorious example of their fidelity and courage will be remembered by those who come after us.
It is with an abiding confidence in our national forces, and with the assurance of my lasting interest in their welfare, that I bid you all an affectionate farewell.

—General of the Armies John J. Pershing from his memoir, My Life Before the World War, 1860–1917

Weekly Giveaway: Generals of the Army

Happy belated Memorial Day! In honor of all those who serve our country in the armed forces, this week’s book giveaway is Generals of the Army, edited by James H. Willbanks and with a foreword by General Gordon R. Sullivan, USA (Ret.)

willbank_finalcvrFormally titled “General of the Army,” the five-star general is the highest possible rank awarded in the U.S. Army in modern times and has been awarded to only five men in the nation’s history: George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry H. Arnold, and Omar N. Bradley. In addition to their rank, these distinguished soldiers all shared the experience of serving or studying at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they gained the knowledge that would prepare them for command during World War II and the Korean War.

In Generals of the Army, James H. Willbanks assembles top military historians to examine the connection between the institution and the success of these exceptional men. Historically known as the “intellectual center of the Army,” Fort Leavenworth is the oldest active Army post west of Washington, D.C., and one of the most important military installations in the United States. Though there are many biographies of the five-star generals, this innovative study offers a fresh perspective by illuminating the ways in which these legendary figures influenced and were influenced by Leavenworth. This concise volume offers an intriguing look at the lives of these remarkable men and the contributions they made to the defense of the nation.

The U.S. Mint recently released a series of special commemorative coins honoring these soldiers and the fort where they were based. You can learn more about these coins by following @generalsofarmy on Twitter!

Enter to win this week’s book by filling out the form below: