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Lest we forget

May 25, 2012

We're hoping everybodyhas a great Memorial Day Weekend, here and throughout the country.

Picnics, skiing, camping, cycling, mountain biking, fishing, more picnics, climbing; and on TV, the Indianapolis 500, golf, and the NBA Playoffs.

In America, we have it all, and good times shine through the bad times on a weekend like this.

But let us not forget the cost of this weekend.

More than a million Americans have died in our wars so we can party on.

 

• The Civil War (1861-65) – 625,000 Union and Confederate combined, but all American.

•  World War II (1937-45) – 405,399

• World War I (1917-18) – 116,516

• Vietnam (1955-75) – 58,516

• Korea (1950-53) – 36,516

• The Revolutionary War (1775-83) – 25,000

• 1812 (1812-15) – 20,000

• Iraq (2003-11) – 4,477

• Afghanistan (2001-present) – 1,803 and counting

• War on Terror (Afghanistan and Iraq Wars total) – 6,280

 

There have been lots of other actions, from the French and Indian War, the Northwest Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, the Seminole War, the Sioux Uprising, Somalia, Yugoslavia, the Rogue River War, and so on. And so on.

Research tells us that the first known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance was in Charleston, S. C., on May 1, 1865. During the Civil War, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were buried in unmarked graves.

Freed slaves knew of the Union dead and decided to honor them. Together with teachers and missionaries, blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony, covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. 

Years later, it came to be called the “First Decoration Day” in the North. Beforehand the freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” 

Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park.

The historian David W. Blight described the day:

“This was the first Memorial Day. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the (Civil) War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

Nowadays on Memorial Day, Old Glory is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.

The half-staff position recalls the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

That said, “Gentlemen, start your engines.”

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