To fully understand the significance, and the lives honored on Memorial Day, you really need to leave home for a site of the sacrifice at least once in your life. In my case…I make it a yearly pilgrimage.
It’s another Memorial Day weekend, and again, for what seems like the 20th year in a row I made the journey this week to one of America’s most hallowed grounds, the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park.
You see, it’s how I celebrate, or more appropriately, ‘appreciate’ Memorial Day – better than a local parade and the decoration of family graves with a lunch of fried chicken afterwards, as I did with my grandmother as an adolescent. Every year on this weekend she’d make her annual trip to the Methodist country cemetery to decorate the grave of her uncle, Joshua Kite, a Civil War veteran who lived well into the 20th century. Mr Kite died in 1937 at the age of 95, and was lucid to tell of what he had seen and endured at Bull Run, Chancellorsville, and Cold Harbor, until the day he died.
That was the way it was done back then. You honored the soldiers, along with stops she made at her parents’ graves, where Grandma always left a bouquet of fresh-cut dahlias, the flower of choice from her own garden.
I never forgot those experiences, and after my family moved to Miami County in the 60s I would walk around Forrest Hill cemetery in Piqua, reading the headstones of the fallen veterans who rested there. For the longest time I could tell you something about each of them, but as time passed I moved on to more compelling Memorial Day venues.
In about 1985 I met Jerry Russell, a Civil War battlefield preservationist who for years fought to preserve the sanctity of places like Manassas, Gettysburg, and Franklin, Tennessee. If you remember when the Disney group was planning a theme park at Manassas battlefield, it was Russell, among significant others, who led the fight to keep them out. They succeeded.
Russell used to say this about Civil War and other military battlefield burial grounds: “Visit them when you can, and while you can. Nothing is guaranteed.” Of course when you’re young you don’t understand the significance of words like “while you can”, but now in the twilight of my years it’s a big deal. Here’s why.
While I can acknowledge the local parades and the three-gun salute in the local cemetery, it pales to the feeling of respect, appreciation, and honor you have when you stand on the ground that Lincoln dedicated to the fallen at Gettysburg in November of 1863. There were about 60,000 casualties in the three days’ battle at Gettysburg, and many of those buried in Evergreen Cemetery were so badly shot up and disfigured that they weren’t taken home – they couldn’t be identified to be sent home for proper burial.
By the way, to give you an idea of the ‘sacrifice’ of Gettysburg, it took ten years of war in Vietnam to amass 60,000 American casualties. Hallowed ground, indeed.
Many others, according to the wishes of their families, were left at Gettysburg as a symbol of their commitment and sacrifice to the Union…about 4,000 of them, in fact. Their graves are decorated not with dahlias this weekend, but with miniature American flags, and it makes quite an impression when the sun rises to grace their final resting place.
Others I’ve visited: Antietam, Chickamauga, Arlington, of course, and the most somber of all…Andersonville, Georgia. They all make you feel the same, that overwhelming sense of disbelief that one’s conviction for his country meant enough for him to give his life to ensure security for the rest of us. They tell me that Normandy, in France, is the most compelling of all, and while thousands go there each year to visit and pay their respects, I’ve never been.
I’m not alone in this. Years ago I happened to be in Savannah, Georgia on Memorial Day, and took it upon myself to observe the commemoration of their fallen. Some came dressed, of course, in Confederate garb, others in modern military attire, but they all came dressed respectfully – no tank tops and flip flops. Actually, many wore suits; a few wore tuxedos. Some of the ladies came in period antebellum gowns.
And, they paid equal respect to the Sons of The South and to those of the contemporary branches of service to the United States of America. They fired their salutes and played the national anthem…the Star Spangled Banner. I was struck by the somberness – no parades, no cheerleading competitions, and no car washes. There was no fund-raising going on. Just respect!
Admittedly, I’m a little ‘hinky’ in my obsession for respect to fallen military men and women. Because in this day they stand out more poignantly than ever from those who would stand back and criticize – protest – while enjoying the fruits of someone else dying.
Truthfully, I’m a little ‘hinky’ about Civil War re-enactments, too. I’ve said for years that the re-enactors should use live rounds if they really wanted to pay tribute to Gettysburg. As it is it’s just too easy to fall down and play dead, then get up when it’s over and meet at O’Rorke’s for a beer. Now how’s that paying respect? Admittedly, I get some odd looks with that suggestion.
Every year that I age my appreciation seems to increase for this holiday, perhaps the most significant of all if you consider what it means compared to the rest. Only Christmas, I guess, can stand alongside, based on sacrifice and reward for those who believe.
Every year I believe I have a better understanding, through experience, study, and appreciation for my approaching destiny to someday meet those who in Lincoln’s words, gave their last full measure of devotion…that the nation might live. Think of that yourself this weekend as heart-felt, genuine honor competes with a hotdog eating contest.
Or just go find a better place to reflect…like me. When you can, and while you can!