Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Sunday Pages: "General Order No. 11"
A decree by Gen. John A. Logan on May 5, 1868
Here in the United States, Memorial Day Weekend is the unofficial start of the summer. We grill up burgers and hot dogs, open up swimming pools, score sweet deals at the Memorial Day Event at our local car dealerships. It’s festive and fun.
But it’s not supposed to be. Before the date was changed half a century ago to the last Monday in May, Memorial Day—originally known as Decoration Day—always fell on May 30. The reason why is the flowers. In late May, the flowers are at the fullest bloom, and it is “the choicest flowers of spring-time” that we are supposed to strew upon the graves of the soldiers who died in combat during the Civil War. This is according to Gen. John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization of Union soldiers, who issued this order three years after Lee surrendered:
The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
Is the killer lease deal on the new Honda Civic a fitting testimonial of respect? Probably not. But I can’t fault the advertisers for trying to move cars. This will be my 51st Memorial Day, and in all that time, I don’t know that I’ve spent more than five minutes contemplating fallen soldiers. There is a somber gratitude in Logan’s words, a sense of gravitas and passion and solemnity, the combination of which is completely foreign to me. A year or two after 9/11, there was a memorial in Rockefeller Center around the anniversary of the attacks; when I heard people giggling at some private joke under that canopy, I had to suppress an almost violent urge to shut them up. That’s the closest I can come, in my lived experience, to what Logan must have felt, but what is that next to commanding the Army of the Tennessee?
Six hundred fifty-five thousand Americans died in combat in the Civil War. At the time, the population of the United States was about 32 million. That means one in fifty Americans died between 1860-65—two percent of the total population. There are ten times the number of people living in the U.S. today, so that death toll would be equivalent to 6,550,000 dead in 2023. Everyone was affected by the Civil War. Everyone had loved ones who died. Everyone—in the North as well as the South—read Logan’s respectful words and nodded in knowing agreement.
Both of my grandfathers fought in the Second World War, and both emerged unscathed. My great-uncle, who I’ve written about on these pages before, joined the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor. He, too, made it home alive. Over 400,000 Americans died in that conflict, out of a population of 132 million. My grandfathers and my uncle lived into their seventies and eighties, but died decades ago. The WW2 veterans still with us are very old; an 18-year-old who joined the armed forces in 1941 would be 100 this year—the same age as that monstrous war criminal Henry Kissinger, responsible for a not-insignificant percentage of the 58,220 Americans who died in Vietnam.
Since the fall of Saigon in 1975—when I was not yet three years old—the United States has managed to avoid the sort of vast, wholesale conflict that would consume an entire population in the way the Second World War and especially the Civil War did. Conscription has not been a thing for most of my lifetime. Service in the military is voluntary, not compulsory. As Jack Nicholson memorably explained in that famous scene from A Few Good Men, most of us are insulated from the horrible consequences of armed conflict.
We lost 6,817 soldiers combined in Iraq and Afghanistan over the long duration of the War on Terror. To put that number in perspective: last year, 20,200 Americans died from gun violence.
This is not to dismiss the sacrifices made by those 6,817. On the contrary: regardless of one’s views on Iraq/Afghanistan and Bush/Cheney, the soldiers who died died fighting for this country, doing their sacred duty—no different than the fallen at D-Day—and their loss should be memorialized with no less ardor. As Logan puts it, “All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders.”
For me, it is an enormous privilege not to know firsthand the hell of war. It is a historical anomaly, a piece of good fortune—and it was made possible by those who died fighting the Confederates, the Fascists and Nazis, the Soviet Empire by proxy, and all the enemies of democracy. And it may not last. Peace is a fragile thing. That’s what I will think about today and tomorrow, as I look out upon all the pretty flowers.
A fantastic Friday night! For our 50th episode(!) of The Five 8, LB and I welcomed two brilliant guests: Pete Strzok and Nina Burleigh. (Chunk and Mimi Ferocious supplied the dance party.)
Then, on the “Afterhours” special—for channel members only!—I caught up with the great Gal Suburban.
Photo credit: Flags, flowers and other mementos adorn headstones in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, May 27, 2018. Every year over Memorial Day weekend, over 135,000 visitors come to Arlington National Cemetery to honor those who have died while in the armed forces. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)