American Elephants

Memorial Day Began in the Aftermath of the Civil War. by The Elephant's Child

It was after the worst war in our history that we began to officially celebrate Decoration Day, when the graves of the fallen were decorated with flowers, and ceremonies of remembrance were held.  It was three years after the Civil War ended on May 5, 1868 that Major General John A. Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), declared that Decoration Day should be Observed, and the last Monday in May was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all across the country.

The first national observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.. The Arlington Mansion, the former home of General Robert E. Lee, was draped in mourning. Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremonies, and after the speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

There were so many fallen, the traditional numbers were 618,222 — 360,000 from the North, 258,000 from the South. Demographic historian J.David Hacker combed through newly digitized census data from the 19th century, and recalculated the death toll and increased it by more than 20 percent — to 750,000. At that, Dr.Hacker made assumptions and the numbers are only an educated estimate. The data suggested that 650,000 to 850,000 died as a result of the war. He chose 750,00 as the midpoint. That meant 37,000 more widows and 90,000 more orphans.

Here is a fascinating photographic essay about the places of the Civil War 150 years ago, with 48 images. Photography was still in its infancy, but war correspondents produced thousands of images bringing the harsh realities of the frontlines  to those at home in a new way. Remember that the United States was only 85 years old at the time. Here are some of the people of the War, the generals and the ordinary soldiers, the slaves, the President, the heroes and the dead.

I lost four great, great uncles in the Civil War, two on each side. One in the battle around Richmond where he was badly wounded and died from his wounds. His older brother and brother-in-law drove a wagon up from South Carolina, near the Georgia border, across South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to bring his body home. His brother was killed at Snickers’ Gap, the only Confederate to die in that exchange. Their younger brother was in the South Carolina Calvary and survived the war.

On the Union side, the Ohio soldiers fought in the war down the Mississippi valley. One, I know only as “Uncle Frank who was killed in the war” for I have a tintype portrait. The other, I believe from the dates, was wounded at Chickamauga and died from his wounds.

War is terrible, and none was ever more terrible than the War between the States. but the nation healed slowly, and remained a strong union. “As we here highly resolve, these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


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