From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

“Poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you”
―from ‘Drum Taps’ part of “Leaves of Grass”
by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, honors United States’ armed services personnel killed during wartime. The Memorial Day was first formally observed on May 30, 1868 to honor the soldiers killed during the Civil War. General John Alexander Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union Army veterans, issued an order that the day be observed “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.” Thus, the day earned the name Decoration Day.

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery, near its Historic Chapel.

In 2008 Green-Wood Cemetery unveiled two new, pale-gray granite Veterans Administration-issued gravestones for the Prentiss brothers; they serve as legible testimony to the Maryland brothers who lie beneath. The elements have worn away and made unreadable the marble 19th-century gravestones that stand just behind them. The new gravestones are made of granite, a much more hearty material that will withstand the elements.

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Project was begun in 2002. Over the past 12 years, through the Project’s efforts, 4,800 Civil War veterans, who are interred at Green-Wood, have been identified. The Project has written biographies for each of these men; it has located each of their graves within the cemetery; and from the Veterans Administration Green-Wood has received 2,000 gravestones to mark the graves for those who have rested for many years in graves that were unmarked.

Sixteen Union generals, including Henry Halleck, Henry Slocum, Abram Duryee, and Fitz-John Porter, and two Confederate generals are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery. Approximately 130 fallen Union soldiers, including men who died at Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg are interred in the shady Civil War Soldiers’ Lot at Green-Wood.

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

“Memorial Day celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go some whither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall—at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.”
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841–1935), from his remarks made on Memorial Day, 1884

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

Is’t death to fall for Freedom’s right?
He’s dead alone who lacks her light!
—Thomas Campbell (1777–1844, Scottish poet)

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s shady Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

“True bravery is shown by performing without witness what one might be capable of doing before all the world.”
—François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680, French author)

A surprising find: the headstone (above) of a native-born Frenchman, Louis Lesnard from Lorient, France, who fought and died in the U.S. Civil War from New York State.

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

Our battle-fields, safe in the keeping
Of Nature’s kind, fostering care,
Are blooming, our heroes are sleeping,
And peace broods perennial there.
—John H. Jewett (1848–1914, American poet)

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

“It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperiled liberty: that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood.”
—Lieutenant General John B. Gordon, C.S.A. (1832–1904)

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

“I am with the South in life or in death, in victory or in defeat . . . I believe the North is about to wage a brutal and unholy war on a people who have done them no wrong, in violation of the Constitution and the fundamental principles of government. They no longer acknowledge that all government derives its validity from the consent of the governed. They are about to invade our peaceful homes, destroy our property, and inaugurate a servile insurrection, murder our men and dishonor our women. We propose no invasion of the North, no attack on them, and only ask to be left alone.”
—Major General Patrick Cleburne C.S.A. (1828–1864)

Memorial Day, Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Civil War, Poetry

Green-Wood Cemetery’s Civil War Soldiers’ Lot.

“Heroism is latent in every human soul. However humble or unknown, they [the veterans] have renounced what are accounted pleasures and cheerfully undertaken all self-denials; privations, toils, dangers, sufferings, sicknesses, mutilations, life-long hurts and losses, death itself—For some great good, dimly seen but dearly held.”
—Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (1828–1914), from his remarks made on Memorial Day, 1897

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2 responses to “From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

  1. It is especially instructive to read the comment by the Confederate soldier at the end and to remember how they perceived their cause.

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    • The quotes of the Confederate officers—Lieutenant General John B. Gordon, CSA (1832–1904) and Major General Patrick Cleburne C.S.A. (1828–1864)—were included exactly for the reason of contrast to long-held Northern beliefs by offering the Southern point of view.

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