May 26, 2014

FROM THE ARCHIVES: DECORATION DAY:

MEMORIAL DAY (Mark Steyn, 5/30/05, Chicago Sun Times)

Memorial Day in my corner of New Hampshire is always the same. A clutch of veterans from the Second World War to the Gulf march round the common, followed by the town band, and the scouts, and the fifth- graders. The band plays "Anchors Aweigh," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," "God Bless America" and, in an alarming nod to modernity, Ray Stevens' "Everything Is Beautiful (In Its Own Way)" (Billboard No. 1, May 1970). One of the town's selectmen gives a short speech, so do a couple of representatives from state organizations, and then the fifth-graders recite the Gettsyburg Address and the Great War's great poetry. There's a brief prayer and a three-gun salute, exciting the dogs and babies. Wreaths are laid. And then the crowd wends slowly up the hill to the Legion hut for ice cream, and a few veterans wonder, as they always do, if anybody understands what they did, and why they did it.

Before the First World War, it was called Decoration Day -- a day for going to the cemetery and "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." Some decorated the resting places of fallen family members; others adopted for a day the graves of those who died too young to leave any descendants.

I wish we still did that. Lincoln's "mystic chords of memory" are difficult to hear in the din of the modern world, and one of the best ways to do it is to stand before an old headstone, read the name, and wonder at the young life compressed into those brute dates: 1840-1862. 1843-1864.

In my local cemetery, there's a monument over three graves, forebears of my hardworking assistant, though I didn't know that the time I first came across them. Turner Grant, his cousin John Gilbert and his sister's fiance Charles Lovejoy had been friends since boyhood and all three enlisted on the same day. Charles died on March 5, 1863, Turner on March 6, and John on March 11. Nothing splendid or heroic. They were tentmates in Virginia, and there was an outbreak of measles in the camp.

For some reason, there was a bureaucratic mixup and the army neglected to inform the families. Then, on their final journey home, the bodies were taken off the train at the wrong town. It was a Saturday afternoon and the stationmaster didn't want the caskets sitting there all weekend. So a man who knew where the Grants lived offered to take them up to the next town and drop them off on Sunday morning.

When he arrived, the family was at church, so he unloaded the coffins from his buggy and left without a word or a note to anyone. Imagine coming home from Sunday worship and finding three caskets waiting on the porch. Imagine being young Caroline Grant, and those caskets contain the bodies of your brother, your cousin and the man to whom you're betrothed.


He's still keeping up this charade about having a staff of assistants?

[Originally posted: 5/30/05]

Posted by at May 26, 2014 12:00 AM
  
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