By Willie M. Calhoun (MSG, USAR, Ret.)
The story of Memorial Day bears many similarities and parallelisms to the story of America itself. Originally called Decoration Day, it was and still is a day to lay wreaths, flowers, and flags on the graves of fallen service persons. Ceremonies are also held at many National cemeteries, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and in many cities.
After America’s first war (the Revolutionary War) it was common for the fallen to be buried alongside other family members in family cemeteries. Annual ceremonies were held as a somewhat private event by families of the fallen in small towns and villages throughout America. After the war of 1812, the graves of the fallen were spread over a larger area. This expanded gravesite area, accompanied by the westward movement of many American families, made it difficult for many families of the fallen to conduct annual graveside services for their deceased loved ones.
My own families’ post revolutionary war movement, like many others in this area, was from Prince George County, Maryland, to Edgefield, South Carolina, to Simpson County, Mississippi, to Catahoula Parish, Louisiana in 1840.
Simply stated, after burying their fallen American Revolutionary war family members, some probably never saw the graves of their fallen again.
The issue of gravesite location of the fallen was to take on a somewhat sadder turn after the Mexican War. Since this was America’s first war fought almost all on foreign soil, identifying gravesite locations became more difficult in many cases. Forensic science, dog tags, DNA, nor refrigeration existed at that time. During early American warfare, it was common to bury the fallen where they fell or for sailors to be “buried at sea.”
Still treatment of our wartime dead was as good as could be expected given the conditions. Nowadays, Americans expect the fallen to be promptly identified and returned to their hometown for burial with full military honors. Due to advanced technology, we don’t expect any more tombs of the Unknown Soldier.
During and after the American Civil war, treatment of our wartime dead began to attract the attention of many Americans. This was because of the stunning loss of lives and property during that war. After almost every battlefield engagement, hastily prepared cemeteries sprang up. Bowing to public pressure, on July 17, 1862, Congress passed an act authorizing National Cemeteries. By the end of 1862, 14 national cemeteries were established.
Today, there are 147 National Cemeteries in the U.S. National Cemetery System. The nearest to our area is located in Pineville. In addition to National cemeteries, we have four state veterans’ cemeteries in Louisiana. The nearest to our area is located in Keithville and Leesville.
This Memorial Day, we should remember that paying our respects to our wartime dead is a solemn annual practice that dates back to the American Revolutionary War. Although it didn’t become a National holiday until 1971, the story of memorial day is much like the story of America and is still being written by our generation. Each arrival of a fallen American serviceperson’s body at Dover Air Force Base adds yet another chapter to our American story.
To refocus on wartime deaths, I’ve added a PBS NewsHour diagram of those deaths. I ask that readers keep these numbers in mind while observing this Memorial Day.