Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Today is a day set aside to honor those who have given the last full measure of devotion in service to the United States of America. Though it is now observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day was originally designated as May 30 and has its origins in the Civil War.

The nation was not prepared for the destruction wrought by civil war and hospitals were quickly overrun whenever a battle was fought. Likewise, existing cemeteries could not handle the overwhelming numbers of dead and the first national cemeteries were established in order to deal with the problem.

In the years following the war it had become increasingly common for towns and cities to hold tribute to the fallen soldiers each spring, laying flowers at their graves  and speaking words of homage and respect.

It is unclear exactly where this tradition originated. Though, in May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, it is likely that numerous communities independently initiated memorial gatherings.

What we do know for sure is that on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization and advocacy group for Northern Civil War veterans, issued General Order No. 11. This order proclaimed that, “The 30th 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.” Logan was calling for a nation-wide day of remembrance, which he dubbed as “Decoration Day.”

General John A. Logan

Logan chose May 30 for the date of Decoration Day because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle, and could therefore serve as a time to honor all those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

On the first Decoration Day in 1868, memorials were held in a variety of cemeteries ranging from local churchyards to the large national cemeteries established during the war. All told, events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27  different states. The largest commemoration effort took place at Arlington National Cemetery where General James Garfield gave a speech, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers interred on the grounds.

Preparing flowers for Decoration Day in 1899

In the years that followed the idea continued to spread, gaining traction when the State of New York officially recognized the day in 1873. This example was soon followed by other states and by 1890 Decoration Day was recognized by all of the northern states.

The Southern states, however, were largely reticent to acknowledge the day, and instead honored their dead in their own way and on separate days.

Even so, the roots of Memorial Day can be found in the south at the same time or even earlier than they arose in northern cities. The first recorded instance of an observance similar to what we now know as Memorial Day occurred just after the war ended in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.

During the war, at least 257 Union prisoners had died while being held on the grounds of the Charleston Race Course, and had been hastily buried in unmarked graves. Knowing of these internments, freedmen in Charleston, assisted by missionaries, put together a May Day ceremony to honor these men. Nearly ten thousand people, most of them former slaves who had gained their freedom as a result of the war, gathered together to commemorate the fallen.  Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site of this commemoration  is known as Hampton Park.

Historian David W. Blight describes the events of the day in this way:
"This was the first Memorial Day...What you have [in Charleston] is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”

We also know that in 1867 Nella L. Sweet published a hymn called, Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping which carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead,” which suggests that organized women's groups in the South as well as the North were decorating graves in the years immediately following the war.

Following the Great War (World War I) half a century later, the holiday evolved to commemorate all those who had been killed serving in the American military, grew in scale, and was observed  by southern as well as northern states.

As time passed the name of the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day," a description which is first recorded in 1882. The latter name did not become commonly used, however,  until after World War II, and was not declared as the official name until 1967.

For a full century Decoration/Memorial Day was observed on May 30, the date Logan had originally selected for the first Decoration Day in 1868. One hundred years later, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed recognition of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, so that it would always result in a three-day weekend, beginning in 1971. This law also declared Memorial Day to be an official federal holiday. It has been observed in this manner ever since.

The manner in which Americans have celebrated Memorial Day has changed, but the principal idea of decorating graves with flowers continues. Over time the poppy has overtaken all other flowers as the primary floral symbol of Memorial Day, and the tradition has expanded to include the wearing of flowers in addition to placing them at gravesites.

Field of Red Poppies in France near the fields of Flanders 

In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," wrote these lines:
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.

In addition to writing these words Moina decided to wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor the fallen. She soon begin to sell poppy flowers to others as well and used the profits to benefit American servicemen in need.  Her devotion and example, coupled with her poem, gave birth to the practice of wearing a poppy in one’s lapels in observance of Memorial Day.

Stars signifying American lives lost in WWII at the National Memorial in Washington, DC

The day has also become a special time to honor the mothers and widows of those who have been lost. These special ladies are known as Gold Star mothers and wives, inspired by the practice of hanging a gold star in the window to symbolize the loss of a loved one in WWI and WWII.

Three Gold Star mothers alongside a park ranger dressed as a Civil War officer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 2010

In the nearly 150 years since its inception Memorial Day has also come to mark the beginning of summer and is often a time of picnicking, barbequing and family vacation. In recent years the focus of the day has shifted toward a celebration of summer and away from honoring the fallen. In an effort to restore the focus to the intention of the holiday, in  December, 2000 the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed to asks all Americans at 3 p.m. local time, “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”

So this Memorial Day make sure to pause and reflect upon the sacrifice of so many that has allowed this nation to be a beacon of freedom and liberty for 236 years.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that 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.

~President Abraham Lincoln at the Dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg,
November 19, 1863

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Groundhogs, the Maryland Campaign, and Running in the Rain

Alison and I have now been married for more than four months. During that time I have succeeded in producing very little in the way of updates as is my wont. For those of you who have been wondering, this has not been the result of a decision to drop off the face of the earth, but rather an undesired consequence of adjusting to three dramatic changes in my life: being married, working full time at a site requiring a 45 minute drive each way, and taking two classes in pursuit of an MA in American history.  As I mentioned in my message last week, I have officially finished my first semester of grad school, which means I finally have a chance to devote some time to other pursuits once again!

It has been quite an adjustment shifting from a job that allowed me to hike in the woods to one that most often requires me to sit in front of a computer. It does sometime cause me to go a bit stir crazy, as was the case yesterday when I decided to go for a run after work. This seemingly innocuous activity increases in significance when set in its proper context. It had been raining for most of the day and was threatening rain again, but I set off on the first manassas loop trail all the same. About 3/4 of the way through, just as I left the cover of trees and came out in an open field, the skies opened once more and by the time I got back to the car I was soaked. It was great fun though, and before the rain started I saw two does, two young bucks (later on), a myriad of squirrels, and two different pileated woodpeckers.  It wasn't bears, but it was still fun. :)

Even when working in the office my time is not devoid of wildlife. Just a few moments ago we discovered that we have not one groundhog (as previously thought), but a family of four living underneath the house. We watched mom, two little kids, and then a rather stocky dad emerge from underneath the porch and enjoy the sun which has recently broken through the clouds.

Though much of time is spent inside on a computer, I am getting to do some pretty neat things. My most recent project has been to write content for and help to design the new web page on the Maryland Campaign for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. What is the Maryland Campaign you ask? Well I'm glad you inquired! Go to, and find out! On the opening page you will see a picture of the three generals who commanded armies during the campaign. We were trying to come up with a single image that captured the entire campaign and couldn't come up with anything, so I made my own. Make sure to either click "History of Maryland Campaign" or just click the picture and it will take you to the historical page where you can learn a lot more about the campaign and who was involved. This is where most of my time has been spent. I did a lot in terms of inputting information and helping to get it in the right places throughout the site, but in the history section I actually wrote a decent portion of what you are reading. There are two places where my writing is especially prominent. First, in many the headings you see including the intro text on the home page for the site, the primary history page, as well as the opening paragraphs for the "people," places," and "stories" sections on the history page, and for many of the stories themselves. And secondly, in the "people" section; I actually wrote each of the 22 (and growing) bios that are found there. So I can officially claim that content on the main National Park Service Website for the Civil War was written by me, which is kind of fun. :)

I also get to be intimately involved in the planning for special events and commemoration activities. In this capacity I have met quite a few people in significant positions of power and influence with the park service. The top position in the park service in the director. Under him are the regional directors. I work directly for the National Capitol Region (one of only eight). In each park the top position is the superintendent followed by the chiefs of each division (interpretation, law enforcement, natural resources, etc). I tell you all of that to give you some understanding when I say that in the past two months, among the people who I have met, conversed with, and in most cases am on a first name basis with, are the regional director the the National Capitol Region: the Superintendents of Manassas, Antietam, Monocacy, C & O Canal, Harpers Ferry, and Richmond: the Chiefs of Interpretation of most of those same parks (except Richmond and Harpers Ferry): the chief historian at Harpers Ferry, several of the primary web developers for the Park Service, the regional communications director, and the person in charge of the entire sesquicentennial for the whole country. So this job is definitely exposing me and my work to all sorts of people who I would otherwise not know, many of whom are in top positions with the Park Service. By way of comparison I never spoke to the superintendent of Wind Cave and the superintendents of the National Mall and Shenandoah had no idea who I was.

But most excitingly, I actually get to be at many of the commemorative events.  The first one that I attended in an official capacity was this past Saturday for the dedication and opening of a new exhibit and visitor center on the C & O Canal just west of Antietam. I was one of the primary photographers to record the event and then posted pictures on their facebook page. If you are interested, this link takes you directly to the album I posted yesterday on the C & O facebook page. Nearly all the pictures in this album were taken by me.

Ferry Hill Dedication Ceremony

Next month I will be going down to Richmond twice for major events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Seven Days battle. In August I will be at the 150th of 2nd Manassas. In September I will be at Harpers Ferry and Antietam. We still don't know about the Fredericksburg battles (Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and then the Wilderness and Spotsylvania in 2014). However, just yesterday the superintendent of Vicksburg National Military Park called and officially requested that we (my supervisor and I) come and spend eight days in Mississippi to document their 150th anniversary exactly a year from now over Memorial Day weekend. I also know for sure that I will be at Gettysburg in July of next year.

So all that is to say that I am getting to do some pretty neat stuff and connect with some pretty important people. Another added bonus is that I just found out that because the work I am doing is of a higher pay grade, I am actually going to be eligible to be promoted to that higher grade at the beginning of the next fiscal year (Oct. 1). So after three years of being unable to get a position higher than a GS-04, I am now working as a GS-05, and will (hopefully) be a GS-07 come October.

Not everything has been about work and school (though much of it has!) Alison and I have been able to get away and have a few adventures. :) The link below takes you to pictures I just (finally) posted on facebook that include the ones of the cherry blossoms I sent at the end of march, as well as our visit to Culpepper, VA, hiking in Shenandoah, Easter Sunrise, and the Nationals-Orioles game this past Saturday. In the past few weeks we also had the chance to ride bikes along the Potomac River on the Mount Vernon Trail, and  reconnect with an old friend from Arizona and her husband and finally play the board game "Puerto Rico" which we have never been able to play because it requires three people.

Spring 2012 (Including cherry blossoms, Easter sunrise, flowers in Shenandoah, and Nats Game)

It has been a good first four months of being married, first semester of graduate school, and first two months of work and we are looking forward to much more to come of all three!

Monday, May 14, 2012

One down.... Four + more to go!

I got up early this morning to do one final read-through, and then sent off my final paper for the semester, which means that as of today I am officially done with all aspects of my first semester of graduate school. I had anticipated it being challenging, but I was still pretty overwhelmed by trying to manage the time required to work 4o hours a week, be married, and actually attend classes, do reading, and write all the papers in pursuit of a masters in American history. In the last few weeks I successfully authored a 43 page paper on factors that contribute to success as an American President, and a second 30 page paper (the one I sent in this morning) about historiography in recent scholarship on Andrew Jackson and Pearl Harbor (yes I did actually connect those two topics together!).

It is fun to be in the classroom again and nice to have conversation and discussion with other lovers of American history. My class on the American presidency was particularly interesting and I enjoyed it as much as I had hoped to.

My professor for that class is one of the most widely respected authorities on the subject in the nation and has all sorts of fascinating personal connections to the presidency. To name a few….
                ~He delivered the eulogy at Betty Ford’s Funeral
                ~When we were discussing presidential speechmaking he had one of Bush ‘43’s
                   speechwriters, John McConnell, come in and talk to us about what it is like to write
                   speeches for and with a president
                ~He is frequently on C-span and other media and news outlets discussing aspects of the
                ~When Bush ’43 wanted to write his memoir (Decision Points) he called in several
                   historians to meet with him and talk to him about what a good memoir would look like.
                   My professor was one of those historians

On the last day of class I went up afterwards to thank him and tell him how much I had enjoyed the course. He responded by thanking me for being so invested in the class and told me that I was one of the “stalwart contributors.” That meant a lot coming from one of the most respected authorities on the subject!

Now I have to decide if I want to only take one class in the fall to make life easier, or if I can pull off two, which would allow me to take one on westward expansion and the American west and a second class on the American Revolution.  I don’t want to have to pick between those two!

Tonight, in honor of me finishing the semester and being married for four months, Alison and I are going to the Nationals/Padres baseball game. It is $1 night which means we can get hotdogs and peanuts for $1. Plus I can get in free with a pass they sent me for my birthday! Of course, it has been raining all day and is supposed to continue so that might not work out so well….