Decoration Day or Memorial Day 2020: Their Spirits Gather Round Me, as I Muse of Poppy’s, Dreaming of Home Oceans Away

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is, or should be the most solemn and reflective of holidays that we observe in the United States. It is the one day a year that we specifically put aside to remember those who died in the service of our country. It is not a day to thank a living veteran for their service, be they active military  personnel, veterans or retirees,, we have our own days, Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Likewise, and even worse, most Americans completely forget and turn it in to a day to kick off the summer holiday season. Not that has been harder to do this year in the midst of the Coronavirus 19 Pandemic, with its related shutdowns and travel restrictions, and since we will probably mark the 100,000th official death in this country later today, it should be a more reflective time.

But the holiday itself it is more interesting, because when it began it was called Decoration Day. It was a day where the families and friends of the soldiers, North and South who died in the war of the Southern Rebellion (the term that Union Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic called it) or the War of Northern Aggression (as it was called by many Southerners) to the less divisive term the American Civil War. Personally, though most of my family fought for the Confederate side despite the fact that their counties of West Virginia had gone to the Union, because they were slave owners, I land pretty hard on calling it the War of the Southern Rebellion, because I am a historian.

Now as a kid I absorbed a lot of the revisionist views of the Southern historians who mythologized the cause, The Lost Cause, their honor and culture, The Noble South, and the hagiography surrounding their heroes like Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, when one looks at their writings, beliefs, and actions, it is far better to label them as rebels and traitors, and the cause that they fought for as evil, but I digress, because even then the truth is more complicated. There were Southerners who never renounced they Union, and close to 40% of Southern graduates of West Point and others that remained loyal to the Union. These included men like General Winfield Scott (Virginia),  George Thomas (Virginia) , General John Buford (Kentucky where his family supported the Confederate Cause) General John Gibbon (North Carolina), Admiral David Farragut (Tennessee) the Union’s master logistician, General Montgomery Meigs of Georgia. Meigs is known for his deep hatred Former U.S. Army officers who fought for the Confederacy, especially Robert E. Lee. He used his position to select Lee’s mansion and plantation property in Arlington, Virginia as the Union’s first, and premiere national cemetery.

But back to Decoration Day. It predates the end of the war in some towns in the south and north where families would go to play flowers on the graves of their relatives or friends who died during the war. In 1865 the newly freed Black population of Charleston, South Carolina dedicated a cemetery to the Union soldiers who had died in Confederate prisons there at the old racehorse track. In 1868, General John Logan, the head of the Union’s largest and most influential veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, called for it to become a National day of remembrance to be held on May 30th. Soon Michigan became the first state to make the day a holiday and they were rapidly followed but most other states. Logan and the G.A.R. headquarters issued the the Decoration Day Order:

GENERAL ORDERS No. 11

I. The 30th day of May, 1868 is designated 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 this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or 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.

If other eyes grow dull and 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 remains in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude—the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the commander in chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By Command of –
John A. Logan,
Commander in Chief

Over the years Decoration Day began to be know as Memorial Day, especially as the members of the G.A.R. became fewer, but the name was not officially changed until 1967. In 1968 Congress passed an act to move four holidays, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day (Formerly Armistice Day), and Washington’s Birthday (now President’s Day) to Monday’s to allow for three day weekends. There have been attempts by Veterans organizations to have Memorial Day moved back to a set date over the past two decades in order to bring emphasis to the solemnity that it should be observed. I would support that, but business leaders and lobbyists have ensured that Congress has take no action to make that change. Thus for most people the day is the kick off of the summer holiday season.

After the end of the American Civil War, the poet Walt Whitman reflected on the human cost of it. Whitman wrote,

“Ashes of soldiers South or North,

As I muse retrospective murmuring a chant in thought, The war resumes, again to my sense your shapes, And again the advance of the armies.

Noiseless as mists and vapors, From their graves in the trenches ascending, From cemeteries all through Virginia and Tennessee, From every point of the compass out of the countless graves,

In wafted clouds, in myriads large, or squads of twos or threes or single ones they come, And silently gather round me…”

Memorial Day is always an emotional time for me, especially since I returned from Iraq in 2008. It is a weekend that I always think about the men and women that I knew who died in action or died after they left the service, some at their own hand, unable to bear the burdens and trauma that they suffered while at war. I was reminded of them again at the memorial service that we conducted for all of our fallen at the Naval Shipyard where I serve.  In an age where less than one percent of Americans serve in the military, I think that it is important that we take the time to remember and reflect on the human cost of wars.

For me I think that is the lives lost that hit me hardest. They were friends who I knew, and also family members that I never met because they lost their lives before I was born.

I think of the battlefields that I have served on in Al Anbar Province, the one my father served on at An Loc, Vietnam, or the battlefields and the graveyards I have been to, Verdun, the Somme, Paschendaele, Waterloo, Arnhem, Normandy, Belleau Wood, Luxembourg, the Shuri Line, the Naktong River, Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Antietam, Stone’s River, Bentonville, Gettysburg, the wrecks of the USS Arizona and USS Utah at Pearl Harbor, and so many more, I think about the men and women who never returned. To me all of these places are hallowed ground, ground that none of us can hallow, the sacrifices of the men who gave their last full measure of devotion have done that better than we can ever do.

There are some songs that are haunting yet comfort me when I reflect on the terrible costs of war, even those wars that were truly just; and yes there are such wars, even if politicians and ideologues demanding revenge or vengeance manage to mangle the peace following them. Of course there are wars that are not just in any manner of speaking and in which the costs far outweigh any moral, legal, or ethical considerations, but I digress…

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the hero of the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg wrote something that talks about the importance and even the transcendence of the deeds of those who lost their lives in those wars fought and died to achieve.

In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

Elton John wrote and performed this song, Oceans Away on the centenary of the First World War. It speaks of the men that never came home, and he related it to those who continue to go off to war today.

I hung out with the old folks, In the hope that I’d get wise

I was trying to bridge the gap, Between the great divide

Hung on every recollection, In the theater of their eyes

Picking up on this and that, In the few that still survive

 

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

 

They bend like trees in winter, These shuffling old grey lions

Those snow-white stars still gather, Like the belt around Orion

Just to touch the faded lightning, Of their powerful design

Of a generation gathering, For maybe the last time, Oceans away

Where the green grass sways,And the cool wind blows

Across the shadow of their graves, Shoulder to shoulder back in the day

Sleeping bones to rest in earth, oceans away

Call em up, Dust em off, Let em shine

The ones who hold onto the ones, they had to leave behind

Those that flew, those that fell,, The ones that had to stay,

Beneath a little wooden cross, Oceans away

Elton John “Oceans Away”

Likewise I find myself thinking about all those times alone overseas, and realize that many did not come home. The song I’m Dreaming of Home or Hymne des Fraternisés from the film Joyeux Noel which was adapted by French composer Philippe Rombi from the poem by Lori Barth I think speaks for all of us that served so far away, both those who returned and those who still remain oceans away.

I hear the mountain birds, The sound of rivers singing

A song I’ve often heard, It flows through me now, So clear and so loud

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

It’s carried in the air, The breeze of early morning

I see the land so fair, My heart opens wide, There’s sadness inside

I stand where I am, And forever I’m dreaming of home

I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home

 

This is no foreign sky, I see no foreign light, But far away am I

From some peaceful land, I’m longing to stand, A hand in my hand

… forever I’m dreaming of home, I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home.

The Canadian physician, John McCrea, served in Flanders with the British Army. There he wrote his  immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history. If we and our leaders are not careful, the peace and international institutions that guarded that peace will be destroyed in a cataclysm of Nationalism, Racism, and renewed wars over contested living space. In short, the 21st Century is setting up to be every bit as bloody as the 20th.

The Armistice Day Poppy which became an international symbol of remembrance for the dead of the First World War was introduced to Decoration Day in 1922. Its roots lie in McCrea’s prom, and that of an American woman volunteering with the YMCA to support the troops in France. In 1918 Moina Michael, a professor on sabbatical from the University of Georgia vowed to always wear a red poppy to remember those who died in the war. Her poem We Shall Keep the Faith expressed her feelings:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

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,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Please take the time to remember those who whose spirits still linger around the battles fields of the Civil War, and those who beneath Crosses, Stars of David, and Islamic Crescent Moons, or plain headstones denoting no religion, who fought for the Allied cause in the First and Second World Wars, and all of the wars since, who still dream of home, oceans away.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

3 Comments

Filed under civil war, History, leadership, Military, Navy Ships, Political Commentary, remembering friends, shipmates and veterans, us army, US Army Air Corps, US Marine Corps, US Navy, Veterans and friends, vietnam, War on Terrorism, World War II at Sea, world war one, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

3 responses to “Decoration Day or Memorial Day 2020: Their Spirits Gather Round Me, as I Muse of Poppy’s, Dreaming of Home Oceans Away

  1. mrmoteeye

    With my maternal roots being Grafton, WV, where the state’s National Cemetery is located, I appreciate this message. Decoration Day has long and precious memories there.

  2. It is heartbreaking to me that Memorial Day, rather like Independence Day and Veteran’s Day, has become for most a day off from work, a day to spend grilling burgers and drinking beer, with no thought of what the day means, the solemnity of the occasion. Thank you for reminding us of the true meaning, Padre.

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