Memorial Day - Living Memories of Vetrans
They gave their lives so we could live in freedom
I never experienced the devastation of losing an immediate family member in war, but like many American families, the Gibson family did lose a loved one in war time. For us, it was William Gibson who died defending the Union in the Civil War. His older brother, Joseph, fought and returned from the war to live a long life. William was not so lucky. Following is a description of what I imagine might have happened, the feelings of some of my family members as they visited the cemetery where William and Joseph are buried.
The first week in April, Margaret and Elizabeth went to the cemetery to decorate his grave with flowers. On their mournful walk to the cemetery, as they gathered the flowers, they could almost taste the sweet aroma of black locust trees. All around the grave they spread a profusion of field mustard, buttercup, fire pinks and dwarf larkspur. The flowers covered the sod of William’s grave that had only a modest wooden marker in the cemetery behind the Presbyterian Church, St. Clair Pennsylvania.
They remembered William, his bright blue eyes and dark black hair, always the first one up in the morning. He might have been the hardest worker on the farm. Despite his five foot five frame, he could lift more bales of hay, harvest more wheat and dance better than most other men in the county. After his older brother Joseph volunteered that July, joining the 62nd Pennsylvania Volunteers, William could hardly wait for the following year when he would be old enough to join too. He wanted to be with his brother and many others from Bethel Presbyterian Church who had joined Company H: St. Clair Guards. Captain Thomas Espy formed the unit from young recruits living principally around the communities of Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair. At age 18, William was soon to become one of the youngest recruits. Over the course of the first year in the Army, he caught a cold that developed into killing pneumonia. So it was that William was the first to return home. His return was swift but his death at home was both slow and agonizing.
The following May, Margaret and Elizabeth returned to the darkly green and small cemetery again, and this time Joseph was somberly walking alongside them. He had made it through his three year enlistment contract, albeit with wounds and a lingering illness. While they never knew for sure, they all felt the war was to end soon; though by that March in 1865, the visitors to the cemetery saw many new graves. Indeed, in months to come, many more soldiers, Union and Confederate, would be buried in a variety of other cemeteries, some in Allegheny County and many others in practically every town and hamlet throughout the states.
After the war’s end, April 9, 1865, the magnitude of death and devastation was both difficult to grasp and overwhelming; not only in terms of the huge number of war dead, casualties, but in the unquantifiable toll of human suffering of families, friends and loved ones who fought on both sides. Later, most historians would agree that at least 618,000 American lives were lost, with the total possibly reaching as high as 700,000. In the 100 years since the Civil War, more than 626,000 Americans died in two World Wars and several regional conflicts; but the Civil War stands out as the most costly war fought in terms of the death of American soldiers.
It was four women in Columbus Mississippi that helped heal the emotional chasm of the Civil War by their actions as described in the Mississippi Index of April 26, 1866. The women included Miss Matt Morton, Mrs. J.T. Fontaine, and Mrs. Green T. Hill who planned and participated in a ceremony to memorialize Confederate dead. Augusta Murdock Sykes, a Confederate widow who was at the ceremonial gathering, noticed the barren graves of Union soldiers. In an apparently spontaneous act of compassion, she placed garlands on gravesites of Union soldiers. Others followed her lead. This exemplary act of kindness inspired stories in the newspapers and at least one famous poem, “The Blue and the Grey” by Francis Miles Finch published shortly thereafter in Atlantic Monthly. The poem is still recognized today for its poignancy and unifying qualities.
On May 5, 1868, John A. Logan, the head of the organization of Union veterans (Commander in Chief, Grand Army of the Republic) proclaimed May 30 an annual Decoration Day - a national day of recognition and expression of love and honor for those who have fallen in War. The date was selected because it was thought this was a time when flowers would be in bloom and readily available for ceremonies. The first large observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery with General and Mrs. Ulysses S, Grant presiding. After the speeches members of the GAR and children went through the cemetery spreading flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns, according to the official reports. Attendance at the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance, about 5,000 people. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.”
It was not until after WWI that the day was expanded to honor all those who have died in American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, designated as the last Monday in May. In December 2000, “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance. All Americans are asked to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”