On this Memorial Day weekend in the United States, as we enjoy three days usually spent in some pleasant activity with family and friends, I wanted to spend a few moments thinking about the reason for the holiday. Holiday seems too festive of a term for a day dedicated to remembering men and women who died in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces, but holiday does come from the word Holy Day. A sacred day. A day for contemplation.
People around the world have been honoring their dead lost to conflict and war since the beginning of human time. We can discuss the rightness, the justness or the causes of any war and come to a number of conclusions, but today I just want to think about the incredible sadness of the loss of so many lives and the gratitude I feel to those who died.
Memorial Day in the United States was established after the Civil War to honor fallen Union soldiers, but now covers all service men and women. At least a million people died during the U.S. Civil War, including at least 600,000 soldiers. Some have estimated the death toll of soldiers as high as 850,ooo. Memorial Day evolved from Decoration Day, which began during the Civil War among freed slaves and other black American families as a celebration of both black and white Union soldiers who fought for liberation and justice
One who particular bore a heavy load during war was Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, President Lincoln and his family spent part of each year (June – November 1862-64) living in a cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC., near the recently established National Cemetery. The Lincoln Cottage, as it is known now, was a refuge from the oppressive summer heat and clamor of the federal area and downtown three miles south, but the daily burials in the cemetery were a constant reminder of the war’s terrible carnage. President Lincoln would often roam in the cemetery at night in torment over the deaths and the burden of the war. So many died in the Civil War that the six-acre cemetery at the Soldiers’ Home was soon filled. A much larger new military cemetery was needed, so Arlington National Cemetery was created. Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs appropriated the land on June 15, 1864 for Arlington National Cemetery from the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia. Lee’s wife Mary Anna Randolph Custis was a descendant of Martha Washington.
The Soldiers’ Home was founded in 1851 as a home for retired and disabled veterans of American wars. Soon after the start of the Civil War, a cemetery was created on its grounds, now called the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery.
The National Cemetery’s website states: “Just days after the Battle of Bull Run, the Commissioners of the United States Military Asylum offered six acres of land at the north end of the Home’s grounds as a burial ground for soldiers and officers. This offer was accepted in late July 1861, and the first burials were made shortly thereafter on August 3.
From 1861 to 1864, the cemetery accepted thousands of soldiers’ remains from 17 of the 25 Union states, quickly filling the six-acre cemetery’s capacity. An 1874 report on the condition of the cemetery noted more than 5,600 interments, including 278 unknown, 125 Confederate prisoners of war, and 117 civilian relatives of the deceased and employees of the Home. In 1883, more than nine additional acres were added to the grounds, bringing the cemetery’s total size to nearly sixteen acres. In 1900, all of the Confederate remains were reinterred in Section 16 of Arlington National Cemetery.”
The Washington D.C. area is home to many memorials and monuments.