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The Real Meaning Of Memorial Day – Reckoning War’s Terrible Cost

In 21st Century America Memorial Day has become something its post-Civil War founders and early observers would not recognize.

They certainly would not recognize it in its commercialization as a three-day-long mattress sale or as the unofficial beginning of summer and an excuse to sell beer and cook hot dogs and ribs.

Nor would they recognize it as a celebration of militarism and the neo con version of patriotism – which it often seems to have become.

In 1868, John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization for Union veterans) issued “General Order Number 11,” designating May 30 as a memorial day, to be set aside "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 churchyard in the land."

In 1866, just a year after the end of the American Civil War, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia passed a resolution to set aside one day annually to memorialize the Confederate dead, and even today throughout the South “Confederate Memorial Day” is observed as a state holiday with many government offices and businesses closed.

The common denominator in the establishment of these observances, because holiday is really not the right word to convey their intent, is the recognition of the death of over 620,000 Americans – the Civil War’s terrible cost that was reckoned-up in “almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."

Today, that terrible cost is rarely given any specific public acknowledgement. It seems somehow quaintly Victorian to dwell on war’s ultimate byproduct: death.

And of course acknowledging that when politicians decide to go to war the death of many of those they send ensues certainly puts a damper on the unofficial beginning of summer picnic season.

But those who established Memorial Day knew war’s terrible cost intimately and, while they held to the justness of their respective causes, they were firm in their resolve that the deaths of those hundreds of thousands lost in the Civil War should not be forgotten.

In the 157 years since the Civil War ended, and Americans began taking a day in May to remember the Civil War’s fallen, many more American war dead have joined those of the Civil War in our Nation’s cemeteries.

It is worth noting that back when the original purpose of Memorial Day was fresh in the minds of Americans, it seems that politicians and elected officials were not nearly so quick to advocate the use of military force, and the notion that we Americans might engage in “nation building” in far off lands or spread western democracy at the point of a gun was a minority view at best.

As the Civil War has receded into history the first to forget the day’s true purpose seem to be the politicians.

This year, as politicians in some quarters are beating the drums for “intervention” in the between Russia and Ukraine, new military deployments in Africa, and advocating war with Iran and Red China, Americans might fairly gather at the end of the parade route to remind their Members of Congress that Memorial Day is not a celebration of war, but a caution against entering a war without admitting the inevitability of its terrible cost.

  • Memorial Day

  • Decoration Day

  • John A. Logan

  • Confederate Memorial Day

  • cost of war

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