You cannot understand Decoration Day without understanding that we lost more Americans in that war than in any other war in our history. We lost more than in either the Great War or the Second World War - the butcher's bill is officially around 650,000 but this doesn't could the civilian toll which raises it to possibly a million. Remember, the population of the USA was only around 35 Million in 1860, so this represents two or three percent of the entire population - which means around ten percent of the military age population.
The depth of that loss is why today is a holiday. The trauma branded an entire generation. We can only get a sense of this from stories. Pickett's Charge is widely recognized as Robert Lee's only military blunder. He sent thousands of irreplaceable troops across a mile of open ground against entrenched positions. As the Yankees shot them down, they chanted Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! It was payback for the previous December when Ambrose Burnside sent charge after charge up a hill against entrenched positions. Lee's troops shot them down. At Cold Harbor one of the Union dead was found with a diary in his pocket. The last entry read June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.
In Shelby Foote's definitive history of that war he explained why the US military no longer has units from a single geographic location. If a unit is recruited from a single town, and then later finds itself in a tight situation, it might be that there are no longer any young men from that town.
Now multiply by a million. The most amazing thing from that war is that even with the bitterness that resulted from such horrifying loss, a single nation was able to emerge. The losses are beyond our comprehension, a preview of the War To End War:
It was not - and is not - about backyard BBQ, Beer, and car sales:In the Battle of Soissons in July of 1918, 12,000 men (Americans and Germans) were killed in four days. Vast crops of white crosses sprouted from the fields their rows and columns fading into the distance as they marched back from the roadside like an army of the dead called to attention until the end of time. American cemeteries merged with French cemeteries that merged with German cemeteries; their only distinction being the flags that flew over what one took to be the center of the arrangement. I suppose one could find out the number of graves in these serried ranks. Somewhere they keep the count. Governments are especially good at counting. But it is enough to know they are beyond numbering by an individual; that the mind would cease before the final number was reached.To have even a hundredth of those cemeteries in the United States now would be more than we, as a nation, could bear. It would not be so much the dead within it, but the truth that made it happen that would be unbearable. This is, of course, what we are as a nation fiddling about with on this Memorial Day. We count our war dead daily now, but we count mostly on the fingers of one hand, at times on two. Never in numbers now beyond our ability to imagine. This is not because we cannot die daily in large numbers in a war. September 11th proved to us that we still die in the thousands, but many among us cannot now hold that number as a reality, but only as a “tragic” exception that need not have happened and will — most likely — never happen again.
It will come as a shock to the 97% of Americans who never, ever served in its armed forces (but probably not so much to any readers of this blog) but today was not instituted to get you an excuse to BBQ, drink beer, or get great deals on linens and TVs.
It's the day for people you probably never met, nor ever will, because they gave up all of their tomorrows, so you could enjoy your today. They lie in ranks, row upon row, on at least four continents, covering hundreds of acres of ground. They spoke nearly every language you can think of. They came in every color of the rainbow of humanity. Their average age is probably around 20 years old. Forever.
Growing up in the 60s, me and my friends were immersed in World War II. Green Army Men played a big part of our childhoods. The town Dads were mostly veterans, but never talked about it. My best friend's Dad finally opened up in the late 90s, when he was really old. He fought across France from Normandy to the Siegfried Line. I asked him when he had never told us those stories when we were young, and he said that he had just wanted to get along with his life, putting the many bad memories of those times behind him. But he said he wanted us to know about his buddies and what they had done.
Forever 20 years old. Remember them today as you fire up your grill. I don't think they - or the boys from Gettysburg or Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor - would begrudge you your family enjoyment. But remember them.
That's what Memorial Day is about.
* It is vulgarly called the "Civil War". It wasn't. The South didn't want to take over the North, it wanted to leave it.
** Our cousins to the north in Canada also celebrate Thanksgiving, although on a different day.