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Memorial Day, A Respective

May 5, 2010

For many Americans Memorial Day gets the summer started, although the actual date is 3 weeks hence. Most folks intuitively do know that Memorial Day is set aside to honor those who died in military service, but most are not familiar with some of the more salient matters regarding this very special day. With that in mind, please indulge me as we review a few of these.

To begin, Memorial Day is not Veterans Day. Most veterans, especially combat veterans, object to being recognized publicly on Memorial Day because this day was specifically established to honor those who have died in service to the Nation. We veterans have “our day” in November. Most “vets” really do appreciate a simple “thank you” anytime for their past or present service.

Very few folks would know that the actual, though unofficial, origin of Memorial Day can be traced to Charleston, SC and to the present day Hampton Park. In 1865 this area, known then as the Washington Race Track, was turned into a temporary prisoner-of-war camp. During the camp’s operation over 200 Union prisoners died and were buried on the grounds in a mass grave.

Soon after the Confederate surrender the bodies were exhumed, mostly by former slaves, and properly re-interred individually in a marked cemetery, complete with white picket fence, all in 10 days. On May 1, 1865 the Charleston newspaper reported that up to 10,000 people, mostly black residents, including 2800 school children, attended the new cemetery’s dedication. The ceremony included a procession, sermons, singing and a picnic on the grounds. This event in Charleston  was, in fact, the first Decoration Day  that, over time, evolved into Memorial Day.

Most folks are probably unfamiliar with the actual numbers associated with Memorial Day. As a Vietnam War Veteran I know that 58,204 Americans died in that war but I am always astonished at knowing that 1.2 million Americans have died in all of America’s wars. We learned just last week that the number of casualties in Afghanistan had reached 1000 so we have a continuum of selfless sacrifice and call to honor. While Memorial Day is set aside to honor all those who have died in military service, most deaths, not surprisingly, are the result of combat related action.

One thing I find to be fascinating regarding war casualties is the magnitude of sacrifice required of those in uniform. The two wars that took the greatest proportional toll, the Revolutionary War and The War Between the States, were fought on American soil.  It is estimated that 8000 American soldiers were killed in action and some 17,000 died as prisoners of the British during the Revolutionary War. That would have been about 1% of all colonist and 3% of all Patriots.

The War Between the States resulted in over 625,000 (364,500 Union and 260,000 Confederate) war related deaths. This represented a sustained rate of 600 per day and totaled 1.9% of the American population. By comparison, the more modern the conflict the less severe the toll, e.g. World War II, 405,399 died at a rate of 416 per day or 0.3%; Vietnam War, 54,204 died at a rate of 26 per day or  0.03%; and Iraq 4401 died at a rate of  2 per day or 0.0015% of  the population.

On Memorial Day 2010 I hope you will find time to reflect upon the national treasure, often full of youthful dreams, that has been invested in our liberty and selflessly spent in the defense of The Constitution over these past 235 years. If possible, purpose to make it personal by remembering a classmate, friend or neighbor. I always try to concentrate on the, admittedly fading, memory of my 44 squadron mates (Navy Seawolves) or others I trained with or were in school with. Above all else…just remember!

Prepared by: John R. “Barney” Barnes, Cdr USN®