As even President Obama may eventually understand, the full cost of war is never paid until decades after the shooting stops. The true cost of America’s wars is what one scholar has called the “Republic of Suffering.” Soldiers suffer. Survivors suffer the longest. And the point of Memorial Day has always been to acknowledge and pay respect to that suffering.
There are places in America where it is impossible to ignore the misery war brings. Some are fields where battles were once fought. And there are America’s expansive national cemeteries. And there are the little churchyards in New England with graves that date to the Colonial Era, and where locals are still interred, and where as many as a third of the graves are marked with simple, grey stones and the stones are carved with the dates 1862 or 1863 or 1864 or 1865.
Memorial Day, first called “Decoration Day,” began as an acknowledgment of the virtually unimaginable suffering that accompanied America’s worst war.
Nobody knows how many soldiers died in the Civil War. A conservative and reliable number is 620,000. Less reliable estimates range as high as 850,000. In comparison, 405,399 Americans died in the Second World War and 58,209 in Vietnam. Fifty-one thousand Americans died in three days at Gettysburg alone. Something like 7,000 unclaimed corpses littered the fields around the town of Gettysburg. The task of collecting those bodies fell to the dead mens’ suffering families. Or the bodies rotted and the fates of the souls who once inhabited them became mysteries.
Four-hundred-seventy-six thousand men were wounded in the Civil War – a war without anesthesia or antibiotics. One in 13 soldiers returned home missing at least one limb.
Virtually the entire student body of the University of Mississippi, 135 of 139 young men, died in the war. Most of them died within the same brief span of minutes in Pickett’s Charge.
Four hundred thousand men simply disappeared. At least 100,000 died of camp diseases; particularly Yankees who died of malaria; particularly the Yankees who had recently immigrated from Germany and Ireland and who were drafted to take the places of prosperous and cowardly men.
Decoration Day began spontaneously in both the North and South – probably in the Spring of 1864, the Spring after Gettysburg – as a day to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. One of the first, verified observances was in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866 where a group of local women gathered to decorate the graves of the local men who had died at Shiloh. The Confederate dead were buried near an untended patch that held the remains of the despised Yankee dead and the suffering and compassionate women of Columbus decorated the Yankee graves as well.
There were at least 25 Decoration Day observances that Spring. The next year Decoration Day had its own hymn titled “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping.” The year after that the dead were remembered in 183 cemeteries and General John Logan, the head of a Union Veteran’s group called the Grand Army of the Republic, asked his veterans to decorate the final resting places of both the Union and the Confederate dead at Arlington National Cemetery. Logan wrote that the graves should be decorated “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” He told his Northern veterans: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance…. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
The name Memorial Day appeared in 1882 and the bitterness between the North and the South continued for almost a century after that. There are still separate days to honor the Confederate War dead in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee
Memorial Day became a national holiday and the culmination of a three day weekend in 1971,
And, our nation is still at war. And it seems there will be never be an end to the suffering.