My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. No politics this week. Here you go:
What became Memorial Day began during the aftermath of the American Civil War. In an effort to find a way to grieve and remember the hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers whose graves were strewn around virtually every community in the newly reunited United States, Gen. John Logan, in his role as commander-inchief of the Union veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic, designated May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day. He set aside the day for the purpose of decorating the graves of those who had given their lives in defense of their country during the Rebellion.
In the first national celebration of Decoration Day, former Union General and future President James Garfield, who was then a congressman from Ohio, gave a speech at the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s former property, which had been designated Arlington National Cemetery. After the speech, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers in an act of national healing.
In the ensuing years, Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day, fixed at the last Monday of May, and expanded to honor all those who have died in defense of liberty in all of America’s wars. The list of honored patriots is long — more than 1.1 million souls — and growing with each passing year. The price of liberty is indeed very, very high.
For most of our nation’s history, military service was compulsory. Men were expected to, and forced to by the government, serve in the armed forces in times of war and peace. Many men volunteered, as did many women, and after the draft was ended in 1973, every member of the armed services is a volunteer.
Although he was almost certainly not the first American soldier to die in combat, the honor of that distinction is generally given to Capt. Isaac Davis. One of the famed Massachusetts Minutemen, Davis set the mold for Americans for generations to come. He stepped forward when called to defend his nation, which was not even a nation yet, from the invading British Red Coats.
After seeing smoke in the town of Concord, the
Minutemen assembled on Punkatasset Hill decided to attack the British. Davis, accepting the honor, declared that, “I haven’t a man that is afraid to go,” and led his company down the hill to the Old North Bridge to confront the British. On the third volley from the disciplined British, a bullet pierced Davis’ heart just as he was raising his gun to fire. Private Abner Hosmer was also mortally wounded in the head during the same volley.
As of the time of this writing, we do not know the details of how Sergeants Joshua Rodgers and Cameron Thomas were killed. Aged just 22 and 23 years old, respectively, Rodgers and Thomas are the most recent casualties of America’s longest war. Both men were in the same unit and were killed by small arms fire on April 26 in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. This Memorial Day will be especially difficult for their families in Bloomington, Illinois, and Kettering, Ohio.
When one strolls through one of the far-too-many cemeteries with countless rows of identical white stones or stands before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that honors those heroes without a stone of their own, the distinctions of how or why they entered the military, race, creed, gender, age, religion, and even time fall into insignificance. Every one of those heroes had one thing in common. When our nation needed them to pay the ultimate sacrifice, they paid it. And for that, we are humbled and deeply thankful.