The Memorial Day tradition started during the Civil War, when the country sought to assuage its sorrow for the great numbers of people that lost their lives in a conflict that set brother against brother, in a country that had been united under one flag for only 85 years. Some might say Memorial Day started in the spring of 1865, when women's auxiliary movements in both the North and South began to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. Others might say that the holiday's roots lay in the Gettysburg Address, as Lincoln called the country to honor those who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Memorial Day was first officially observed May 30, 1868, following this proclamation made on May 5, 1868 by General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers:
"The 30th 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 churchyard 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."
My family is fortunate to have a real treasure: the Civil War diary of my great-grandfather, James L. Wales Jr., who enlisted in the Union Army Aug. 19, 1864. His words make this era come alive for me, and have underscored with me the notion that the heroes of war who deserve our honor — even those in wars fought long ago — are not only the ones who never came home. Every war has its survivors, who did their duty, returning home to family and friends with memories most of us could never imagine, and with heartache for the time they lost with those they love.
James was a private in 'M' Company, 4th Heavy Artillery Regiment, of Massachusetts, which was organized Aug. 1, 1864, and joined forces in the defense of areas around the Potomac River. In this regiment, no officers or enlisted men were killed or mortally wounded. Two officers and 23 enlisted men died of disease or accident. But those who served did so with pride.
My great-grandfather was a hospital steward in the forts surrounding Washington, D.C. As a hospital steward, he didn't see any action himself. At first glance, his diary is filled with mostly mundane entries — lots of commentary about the weather and what they had for supper. There are no new insights into battles won or lost. But taken as a whole, it presents a picture of what day-to-day life was like for some of the men in 'M' company. ("Bathed in the river last night." "Had oysters for supper." "Played the fiddle at the Company dance.") One common thread that runs through the diary is how much James missed his wife, Mary. He looked for letters from her every day, and eventually began numbering them, along with his replies. "Answered Mary's No. 18 with my 19."
"Jimmie," as my great-grandfather signed his letters to Mary, shared his wife's worries about their baby daughter Mamie, who seemed to be taken ill often, and longed for the day he could go home to them both. His happiest day came June 17, 1865, even as women's auxiliaries were likely decorating the graves of the Civil War's fallen. I know this because, by some quirk of fate or by design, the last letter he wrote to Mary while he was enlisted was tucked in the back of his diary, still in its post-marked envelope:
This is probably the last letter I shall write out here.
Fort Williams Hospital, Va.
June 17th, 1865
My Darling Mary,
I received your very interesting letter No. 23 yesterday afternoon, but I didn't feel much like writing, so put it off until today, and I am very glad I did, for I have some good news to tell you tonight.
This morning we heard we were to be mustered out, but have heard so many storys we didn't know whether to believe it or not. But this afternoon the Mustering Officer came and we were mustered out, but that don't mean that we are discharged. It is only a preliminary arrangement. But we are all pretty much pleased, for we think now we shall certainly start for home next Monday or Tuesday. So if nothing happens, we shall be in Old Boston the last of the week. Oh! How glad I shall be. I hope Father and Herb will go to Boston and see the Regiment. It won't display many battle flags, neither will it crave much honor. But it will be the best looking Regiment, and the largest one, that ever went into Boston. Had it been in active service, I have no doubt it would compare favorably with others, for we have as good and brave men as any. As it is, we have done our duty in the place assigned us, and what more could we do. . . .
Give my love to all, and accept a large share for yourself and our darling baby, from your affectionate and loving husband.