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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+

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The Bloodiest Day In American History: The Battle Of Antietam, September 17th 1862

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have visited the battlefield of Antietam, at Sharpsburg, Maryland numerous times going back to the 1990s. Apart from Gettysburg, I have been to it more than any other battlefield in North America. It it a haunting place, not nearly as commercialized as the outskirts of Gettysburg have become. Yet on it, more Americans were killed or wounded on any single day in American history, and it was Americans killing other Americans. Though the battle itself was a draw in terms of tactical terms, it turned out to be one that helped decide the course of history. Historian Stephen W. Sears wrote:

“Of all the days on all the fields where American soldiers have fought, the most terrible by almost any measure was September 17, 1862. The battle waged on that date, close by Antietam Creek at Sharpsburg in western Maryland, took a human toll never exceeded on any other single day in the nation’s history. So intense and sustained was the violence, a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind’s eye the very landscape around him turned red.” 

Captain Emory Upton, of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, and later one of the men who helped modernize the tactics of of the Army in the 1880s wrote:

“I have heard of ‘the dead lying in heaps’, but never saw it till this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”

Another officer, Lieutenant Frederick L. Hitchcock Of the 132nd Pennsylvania at the Bloody Lane:

“We were in the very maelstrom of the battle. Men were falling every moment. The horrible noise was incessant and almost deafening. Except that my mind was absorbed in my duties, I do not know how I could have endured the strain.” 

To the west of Frederick Maryland a small town named Sharpsburg sits on the west side of a creek. Named Antietam the creek’s headwaters are in Franklin County Pennsylvania and it meanders south where just to the south of Sharpsburg it empties into the Potomac River.

It is a peaceful place, rolling hills and agricultural country with some well preserved stone arch bridges, including one just outside of Sharpsburg. It is hard to believe that 150 years ago the town and the creek were the scene of the bloodiest single day of battle in American history.

On that indian summer day of 1862 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee, commanding made a stand against the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding.

Lee had invaded Maryland following a string of successes in Northern Virginia during that summer of 1862, defeating McClellan outside of Richmond in the Seven Days, and in a campaign of maneuver bested a newly formed Army, the Union Army of Virginia commanded by Major General John Pope defeating it at the Second Battle of Bull Run between 28-30 August 1862. With Northern Virginia’s crops and livestock depleted and his opponents in crisis Lee moved his army north into Maryland. The decision was driven partly by the need to provision his army, but also had the hope of drawing Maryland away from the Union mistakenly believing that public sentiment in that state was pro-Confederate. If the people of Maryland rose up to support Lee it would be disastrous to the Union and endanger the capital itself. A final consideration was the hope that a Confederate victory on Northern soil would bring about the foreign recognition and possibly the intervention of Great Britain on the side of the Confederacy.

                                                   The Lost Order

Lee crossed the Potomac on September 3rd and sent his Second Corps west with some elements seizing the Union armory in Harper’s Ferry, others to secure the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Martinsburg the rest of the Army was in the area of Frederick. He was pursued by the very cautious McClellan at the head of the Army of the Potomac.

On September 9th Lee issued General Order 191, the infamous “lost order” which a copy of which was found by Union soldiers wrapped around three cigars at a campground recently occupied by Lee’s rear guard element, the division of D.H. Hill on September 13th. The order detailed the disposition of Lee’s army and McClellan seized the opportunity. On the 14th the Army of the Potomac attacked part of Lee’s army at the Battle of South Mountain. The Union won that battle forcing the outnumbered Confederate forces to withdraw, though the delay allowed Lee to concentrate more of his army at Sharpsburg on the 15th.

Although he outnumbered Lee McClellan believed the reports of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which provided intelligence to the army. Those estimates which credited Lee with more than 100,000 troops. He delayed his attack until he had drawn up his full army on the on the 17th.

                            The Dead Near the Dunker Church

When he did attack on the 17th his attacks were uncoordinated and though he came close to decisive breakthrough Lee’s army desperately clung to its positions. The action began to the north of the town in the morning and both sides showed incredible ferocity at the Cornfield, where in the space of about three hours nearly 8000 soldiers were killed or wounded. The fighting shifted to the center of the line opposite the town by mid-day. Amid the destructive storm of artillery the armies fought around the Dunker Church and a sunken lane now known as “Bloody Lane.” In the confines of that 800 yard stretch of road over 5000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the course of about four hours. The Union forces broke the Confederate line but reinforcements were not sent and when the the division commander, Major General Israel Richardson was mortally wounded the attack lost its verve and the Confederates under Lieutenant General James Longstreet were able to restore the line.

The south remained quiet as McClellan ordered Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps to hold off on attacking. Burnside did not receive his orders to attack until 1000. He finally attacked across the south bridge, now known as Burnside’s Bridge in the afternoon. It was another tough fight and Burnside, after several attempts move to the south to flank Confederate forces in the late afternoon with the intention of cutting Lee from off his only escape route.  The Confederates were in a desperate condition. It was at this point, about 3 PM when the division of Major General A.P. Hill arrived and immediately counterattacked breaking up Burnside’s attack. Burnside requested reinforcements from McClellan who refused saying that he had none available. This was not the case, McClellan had two full corps of infantry uncommitted to the battle but still believing that he was outnumbered and that Lee was attempting to trap him.

The actioned ended by 530 PM with both sides rested and reorganized for action the next day. Lee prepared to defend but no Union attack was offered on the 18th. An informal truce was observed to allow the evacuation of the wounded and Lee began his withdraw across the Potomac into Virginia that night. Despite being goaded by Lincoln to pursue McClellan did not and the Union lost the opportunity to destroy Lee’s army n Union territory.

Casualty estimates vary but according to Stephen W Sears in his book Landscape Turned Red that the Army of the Potomac lost 2108 dead, 9540 wounded and 753 missing. He states the best estimate of Confederate casualties are 1546 dead, 7752 wounded and 1018 missing. Most of the missing were likely killed and buried in mass graves or discovered and buried by civilians after the battle. In the space of 12 hours 22719 Americans were killed or wounded. It was the bloodiest single day in American military history.

Though the battle was inconclusive in that Lee’s army survived but had to break off its offensive it had more influence than expected. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd and though it did not take effect until January 1st 1863 it marked a turning point in the war.

McClellan failed to take up the offensive in the next tow months and Lincoln relieved him of command giving the Army of the Potomac to Burnside who goaded by Lincoln took the army into battle at Fredericksburg where it met with defeat.

I have been to the battlefield a number of times, on my own in 1997, once as part of a “staff ride” with the Marine battalion that I was assigned in May of 2000, and a couple of other times on my own. The last time I was there in 2017, I walked over 17 miles on the battlefield.

Each time I go I take the time to ponder the great losses endured by both armies and the individual courage of the soldiers involved. Some of the units that I served with in the Army National Guard in Texas and Virginia trace their lineage and honors to regiments that fought at Antietam and I have felt a connection to the battle because of that. It is hard to imagine the amount of death and carnage taking place in such a placid location in such a short amount of time.

It is something to ponder when some Americans openly suggest another civil war if their party does not win the next Presidential election.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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A Reflective Sunday at Bull Run


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I mentioned yesterday we have been on the outskirts of Washington DC attending a get together of Papillon dogs and their loyal human companions. Since the meeting was breaking up today and since we are remaining until the morning to see another friend in the area, I took a trip to the Manassas Battlefield National Park. 

The First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run was the first major battle of the American Civil War. At the time it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought on the North American continent. The combined strength of both armies was close to 70,000 men, although both sides only committed about have of their men to the battle. On the day of battle about 850 Union and Confederate troops were killed and another 2600 wounded. The armies and their commanders were inexperienced and but for the stand of the brigade of General Thomas Jackson the affair may have led to a Union victory. But instead it was a Union defeat. Even so the battle showed the leaders of both sides that the war would neither be short, nor bloodless. 

It was a wake up call to both and though the number of casualties shocked the Union and the Confederacy, the number of casualties would pale in comparison with so many later battles. 


Compared to Gettysburg or Antietam the battlefield is relatively devoid of markers or memorials and most of the ones here commemorate Confederates. But then the battlefield is in Virginia and these were all built by the state of Virginia or Confederate veteran organizations. Even so the number of monuments is tiny compared to Gettysburg or Antietam, and the largest was errected in 1938 and dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, and compared to monuments on other battlefields seems almost looks like a superhero rather than a real flesh and blood person. But then such is the myth of Stonewall Jackson, to many people then and to others even today, the myth overshadows reality. 

As I walked around I spent most of my time reflecting about the Civil War and what our country is going through now. I read a statement by the leadership of the League of the South after the election of Donald Trump which read like the speeches of secessionist leaders in early 1861. I will take the the time later to post those statements so you can compare them, just not now. They make fascinating, if not frightening reading when you read them and realize that 166 years have past and the League of the South, the KKK, and other White Supremacist groups have not altered their thinking since before Bull Run. 

I wonder what will happen if Donald Trump does not reign in his most ardently deplorable White Supremacist supporters, or if he miscalculated the effect his words word actually have on people and he won’t be able to dial things back. I am beginning to believe that he is not nearly as prejudiced or hate filled as many of the White Supremacists who rallied to his banner. That remains to be seen, but all over the nation there are violent incidents by people claiming to be Trump supporters against minorities of all kinds. I just hope that the many more people who voted for Trump because he was not Hillary, or because he was a supposed outsider will not stand by silently like the vast majority of Germans who said nothing and did less when the Nazis launched their persecution of the Jews, other ethnic minorities, and political opponents during the Third Reich. I honestly don’t think that the majority of those that voted for Trump are racists, yet ther are a significant number that are and that fact cannot be ignored. 

So there was a lot to think about at I walked that seven mile long loop around the battlefield. These are things that I will continue to ponder and write about as we enter the Trump era. 

Have a great night. 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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