Death & Dying in the Civil War

Ultimately, 303,536 Union soldiers were re-interred in 74 new National Cemeteries, and Congress officially established the National Cemetery system. Careful attention to the content of graves and to the documentation that poured in from families and former comrades permitted the identification of 54% of the reburied soldiers. Some 30,000 of the re-interred were black soldiers. Just as they were segregated into the U.S. Colored Troops in life, so in death, they were buried in areas designated “colored”.

This federal effort included only Union soldiers. Outraged at the official neglect of their dead, white southern civilians, largely women, mobilized private means to accomplish what federal resources would not. In Petersburg, Virginia, for example, the Ladies Memorial Association oversaw the re-interment of 30,000 dead Confederates in the city’s Blanford Cemetery.

 

Source: Death and Dying in the Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust, National Park Service,

About Memorial Day:

Recognized today as a national holiday to honor all Americans who have died while in military service, this holiday started as “Decoration Day”. It’s origins can be traced back to as early as June of 1861 where a claim is made that Civil War soldiers graves were decorated in Warrenton, Virginia. There is also documentation showing women in Savannah Georgia decorating Confederate graves in 1862.  Boalburg, Pennsylvania claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day due to women decorating soldiers graves on July 4, 1864 at the National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

However the first widely recognized observance of “Decoration Day” came just after the war ended on May 1, 1865. Black residents of Charleston, South Carolina, along with teachers and missionaries organized an event to honor 257 Union prisoners who had died while being held at the Charleston Race Course. Almost 10,000 people showed up for the event, most laying flowers on the burial field which is now Hampton Park.  Years later it would be labeled as the “First Decoration Day” in the North. Other observances were held throughout the North and South over the next decades, with the term “Memorial Day” first being used in 1882.  That term would not become common until after World War II.

Memorial Day would not become an official Federal Holiday until 1967, and in June of 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved the observance to a specific Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend.  The changed moved it from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The Holiday Act became law in 1971.

The Civil War made hundreds of thousands of women, widows.

The Civil War made hundreds of thousands of women, widows.

Today, Memorial Day continues to honor those who have fallen in service of their country with solemn observances mixed with family gatherings to kick off the Summer season.  The traditional observance is to raise the U.S. Flag to the top of the staff, then slowly lower to the half-staff position in the morning. This is to remember the million or more men or women who have died in service.  Then at Noon the flag is raised to full-staff for the rest of the day to raise their memory by the living, who resolve that they have not died in vain.

Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May, 2017.

Also See:

Confederate Graves on the Natchez Trace

Evolution of National Cemeteries

 

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