Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial/Decoration Day

Civil War Flag of Company A, New York 16th Infantry Regiment

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, is as Federal Holiday that occurs on the last Monday in the month of May.  It is a day in which we take time to remember the sacrifices of those brave men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.  Memorial Day originated in the days following the American Civil War.  There is documentation that shows women in Savannah, Georgia were decorating the graves of Confederate Soldiers as early as 1862.  President Lincoln delivered his famous "Gettysburg Address" on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claim that ladies decorated Soldier's graves there on July 4, 1864. 

The first well known well known observance of a Memorial Day-esque event was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.  During the Civil War, Union Soldiers were held as prisoners of war in the Charleston Race Course.  As many as 257 of those soldiers died there and were buried in shallow, unmarked graves.  Freed Blacks cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground and erected a stone arch labeled "Martyrs of the Race Course."  Nearly ten thousand people gathered on May 1st to commemorate the dead, most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.  This celebration would be referred to by some as the "First Decoration Day". 

In April of 1866, tens of thousands of ladies in the South gathered in their respective towns to commemorate their war dead.  Ladies Memorial Associations began to spring up all over the South.  Their purpose was to decorate the graves of the Confederate Soldiers who died during the war.  Soon, all the States in the South caught on and began celebrating Confederate Memorial Day.

General John A. Logan

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, commander of the Union Civil War Veterans Fraternity, the Grand Army of the Republic or GAR, issued a proclamation that Decoration Day should be observed Nationwide and annually.  Logan emulated the practices of the Confederate Memorial Day holiday stating, "it was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South in perpetuating the memory of their friends who had died for the cause they thought just and right."

On May 30, 1865, Memorial Day as we know it was celebrated for the first time.  Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate Soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery.  Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 States.  Northern States quickly began to adopt the holiday.  Ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, which numbered 100,000 strong.  By 1870, the remains of over 300,000 Union Soldiers had been reinterred in 73 National Cemeteries, located near various battlefields from the war.  The preferred name of the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882.  By 1890, all the Northern States had adopted the holiday.  Southern States refused to acknowledge the holiday, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I.  The National celebration did not become a common occurrence until after World War II. 

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

On May 3, 1915, Canadian Physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the words to the now famous poem "In Flanders Fields".  McCrae was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres.  "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8, 1915 in London's Punch magazine.

"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."

In November of 1918, humanitarian and Professor Moina Michael, penned the poem "We Shall Keep The Faith".   The inspiration of her poem was McCrae's "In Flanders Fields".  

"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 luster 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."

Michael then conceived an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who had died while serving the Nation in war.  She was the first to commemorate this practice. 

In 1967, "Memorial Day" was declared the official name of the holiday by Federal Law.  The "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" of 1968 moved four holidays, including Memorial Day from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create 3 day weekends.  This changed Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May.  Traditionally, United States flags are placed on the graves of Soldiers who died while serving our country. 

Graves at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day

Many cities in the United States have National Cemeteries where veterans and war dead alike are buried.  The Raleigh National Cemetery was one of five National Cemeteries established in 1865 to provide burial grounds for Union Dead.   The cemetery was established while General William Tecumseh Sherman was in possession of the City of Raleigh in April of 1865.  The location of the cemetery was formerly known as Camp Green, a U.S. Army post for the Union occupation fort.  A post cemetery containing 32 unknown Union Soldiers pre-dates the National Cemetery.   

Unknown Union Soldier's Grave at Raleigh National Cemetery

The cemetery also contains casualties and veterans from each war the United States has participated in since the American Civil War.  There are six groups of burials dating to World War II that contain the remains of 16 servicemen.  The graves are marked with flat markers that bear the name, rank, and date of death of each of the 16 men.

Sergeant William Maud Bryant

The Raleigh National Cemetery is also the final resting place for Vietnam War Era Medal of Honor recipient, Sergeant William Maud Bryant.  The following excerpt is Sergeant Bryant's Medal of Honor Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.  Sfc. Bryant, assigned to Company A, distinguished himself while serving as commanding officer of Civilian Irregular Defense Group Company 321, 2d Battalion, 3d Mobile Strike Force Command, during combat operations.  The battalion came under heavy fire and became surrounded by the elements of 3 enemy regiments.   Sfc. Bryant displayed extraordinary heroism throughout the succeeding 34 hours of incessant attack as he moved throughout the company position heedless of the intense hostile fire while establishing and improving the defensive perimeter, directing fire during critical phases of the battle, distributing ammunition, assisting the wounded, and providing the leadership and inspirational example of courage to his men.   When a helicopter drop of ammunition was made to re-supply the beleaguered force, Sfc. Bryant with complete disregard for his safety ran through the heavy enemy fire to retrieve the scattered ammunition boxes and distributed needed ammunition to his men.   During a lull in the intense fighting, Sfc. Bryant led a patrol outside the perimeter to obtain information of the enemy.   The patrol came under intense automatic weapons fire and was pinned down.   Sfc. Bryant single-handedly repulsed 1 enemy attack on his small force and by his heroic action inspired his men to fight off other assaults.   Seeing a wounded enemy soldier some distance from the patrol location, Sfc. Bryant crawled forward alone under heavy fire to retrieve the soldier for intelligence purposes.   Finding that the enemy soldier had expired, Sfc. Bryant crawled back to his patrol and led his men back to the company position where he again took command of the defense.   As the siege continued, Sfc. Bryant organized and led a patrol in a daring attempt to break through the enemy encirclement.   The patrol had advanced some 200 meters by heavy fighting when it was pinned down by the intense automatic weapons fire from heavily fortified bunkers and Sfc. Bryant was severely wounded.   Despite his wounds he rallied his men, called for helicopter gunship support, and directed heavy suppressive fire upon the enemy positions.   Following the last gunship attack, Sfc. Bryant fearlessly charged an enemy automatic weapons position, overrunning it, and single-handedly destroying its 3 defenders.   Inspired by his heroic example, his men renewed their attack on the entrenched enemy.   While regrouping his small force for the final assault against the enemy, Sfc. Bryant fell mortally wounded by an enemy rocket. Sfc. Bryant's selfless concern for his comrades, at the cost of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

Grave of Sergeant William Maud Bryant

On May 18th, I visited the Salisbury National Cemetery in Salisbury, North Carolina.  While many National Cemeteries are located near the fields of battle that claimed the lives of those buried there,  Salisbury National Cemetery is located near the mass burial of thousands of Union troops who died while being held as prisoners of war at Salisbury Prison.  As many as 11,000 unknown Union Soldiers are believed to be buried there in unmarked mass graves in 18 separate burial trenches.  The area of the trenches remains unmarked, however the outline of the trenches is marked by "Unknown Soldier" Markers.

Marker for Unknown U.S. Soldier at Salisbury National Cemetery

In the early 1900's, Maine and Pennsylvania both erected monuments to their dead at Salisbury National Cemetery.   A Federal Monument was erected in 1876 to commemorate the unknown dead. 

Federal Monument erected in 1876

The inscription on the front panel reads:

"In 18 trenches, just south of this spot, rest the bodies of 11,700 soldiers of the United States Army, who perished during the years 1864 and 1865 while held by the Confederate Military Authorities as prisoners of war in a stockade near this place."

Inscription on the Federal Monument

Although the majority of my ancestors who served in the American Civil War were Confederate Soldiers, I have found 46 members of my family who served in the Union Army.  Five of these men made the ultimate sacrifice for the Union.

Below are the known Union casualties my family incurred during the American Civil War:

1) Private Pinkey Quinn Collins (3rd cousin, 5x removed)  Company A, Missouri 75th Infantry Regiment.  Died ten days after a gunshot wound received at the Battle of Crooked Creek, Missouri, August 15, 1862.  43 years old at the time of his death. 

Grave of Pinkney Quinn Collins

2) Private David Thomas Bressie (1st cousin 6x removed)  Company D, Missouri 32nd Infantry Regiment.  Died from disease at Young's Point, Louisiana, January 23, 1863.  41 years old at the time of his death. 

Grave of David Thomas Bressie

3) Sergeant Samuel I. Sneed (2nd cousin 5x removed)  Company B, Indiana 16th Infantry Regiment.   Killed during the Battle of Vicksburg, May 24, 1863.  34 years old at the time of his death. 

4) Private Andrew J. Sneed (2nd cousin 5x removed) Company B, Indiana 16th Infantry Regiment.  Killed in action during the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, April 4, 1864.  20 years old at the time of his death.  Brother of Samuel I. Sneed. 

5) Sergeant David John Stovall (2nd cousin 5x removed)  Company I, Louisiana 2nd Union Cavalry Regiment.  Died from disease at General Hospital, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 4, 1864.  37 years old at the time of his death. 

Grave of David John Stovall

**An interesting side note, my 5th Great Grandfather, Allen Noblin was a Private in Byrne's First Virginia Regiment during the War of 1812.  Allen was killed in action in Petersburg, Virginia on October 25, 1814.  He was 34 years old at time of his death. 

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