Memorial Day reminds us of cost of freedom


“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.”

— Memorial Day Order,

Commander John A. Logan, GAR

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

— John 15:13

The deadliest war in American history had just come to a close. President Lincoln was dead, and a new spring dawned throughout an America again unified in government, if not in purpose. The thaw of spring and the burst of nature’s colors led many to begin the task of addressing the scars of war upon the American countryside. The mark that it would eventually leave on Americans and American history was not yet as clear as the mark that it had recently left on the battlefields and graveyards of the war.

On April 25, 1866, a group of women from Columbus, Mississippi, ventured to a war cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had perished in the Battle of Shiloh four years earlier — a battle which cost both Union and Confederate armies the lives of more than 1,700 soldiers with countless more injured, captured or missing. Nearby were the untended graves of the Union soldiers — many of them bare. Local reports, now recounted by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, recorded for posterity that the women were disturbed by the lack of attention paid to the Union dead and decorated their graves with flowers as well.

Other cities claim the title as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Just four days after the graveside visits in Mississippi, a “Decoration Day” ceremony was held in Carbondale, Illinois. Nearly a year earlier on May 1, 1865, nearly 10,000 freed slaves marched in Charleston, South Carolina, to the site of a former Confederate prison camp. Dressed in black and singing “John Brown’s Body,” they too called the event Decoration Day. Cities in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia also claim that the roots of the holiday rest in their jurisdiction.

The first official ceremony was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery following a proclamation of Decoration Day by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. General Grant was among those in attendance and again, the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated. The day was not declared a national holiday until 1971 when the date was set as the last Monday in May.

Through the passage of time, Memorial Day has come to be a time of recognition for more than just veterans of the Civil War. Now serving as a commemoration of all men and women who died in military service, it will be marked by a number of local events.

Inside the Hamilton-Williams Campus Center at Ohio Wesleyan University are two plaques posted in remembrance of those OWU students and graduates who gave their lives in service during the World Wars. Among the dozens and dozens of names, there is but one woman — Dorothy E. White. I noticed her name while attending an event in the campus center several years ago and wondered how she came to be listed among the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I found the answer in the July 1, 1944 edition of the New York Times.

There, among the yellowed pages was a small, one-column story titled, “7 Red Cross Aides Missing Overseas.” White, then 39 years old, was serving as a hospital aide out of the New York City office of the Red Cross. Formerly a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Citizen, the Times reported that her mother, Mrs. Howard Whitehead, “resides in Columbus, Ohio.” She was on a plane, along with six other Red Cross workers, flying from Italy to Sardinia just six days after the D-Day invasion, when the plane went missing. Of more than 20,000 overseas Red Cross workers, only six others had died during the war. At the bottom of the plaque is the first half of the quote from the 15th chapter of John listed above.

In his 1868 order, Maj. Gen. Logan said, “Let no 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.” On Monday we pause, 156 years later, to remind ourselves again of that cost.

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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