Memorial Day is a unique moment to honor a very specific type of Americans: those who have died, either in the service of our nation or after a career of military duty. Abraham Lincoln would characterize them, three years before the concept of Memorial Day came about, on a battlefield in southern Pennsylvania where sixty thousand Americans had been killed, as “these honored dead,” emphasizing that we must double our commitment to the “cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
The Day was first formally recognized in 1866, when Waterloo NY started a national trend of lowering flags to half staff, draping the village in black to represent mourning, and decorating the graves of soldiers lost during the War. This energy was propelled both by living veterans and loved ones of the dead.
Originally in the first week of May, the day was pushed back to later in the month as more communities began to acknowledge a day to memorialize their dead, likely to allow for more flowers to bloom before they were plucked by loved ones to place upon graves.
It’s unfair to stratify the impact of American military engagements by the number of deaths; each time the American military is involved in combat, lives of service members are in danger and, hopefully, the purpose is worthy of placing those lives in danger. However, the emphasis on the number of Americans killed in each war reminds us that although the Civil War is a far distant moment in history and no longer in living memory, it was, by far, the most quantifiable carnage in American history.
Tabulating data of wartime casualties will yield different figures depending on certain factors: the number of people killed during battle, weighing the inclusion of those who died from wounds or infections in post-war years, etc. As a result, official figures hover anywhere from 493,000 to 750,000 American deaths. Either way, the number of fatalities from the Civil War surpasses that of any other American war in history, and—accepting WWII—surpasses the combined sum of casualties from every other American conflict.
The United States population in 1860 was about 31 million people—a tenth of today’s population. Using the often-cited figure of 620,000 fatalities, about two percent of the American population died in the war. It’s fair to assume that literally everyone knew someone who either was killed in battle or died from disease in camp. Often, since regiments would be mustered out of a certain community or region, entire towns would be robbed of all military-aged men. Today, that ratio would equate to six million deaths.
It is doubtless that every war is a horrific and tragic experience for everyone it touches. Yet as Americans there exists a patriotic dedication bred in the bone, in which we honor and remember the fallen by redoubling our loyalty to the purpose for which they died. The difference of the Civil War is that while all others can feel resolute (or perhaps bereft) in lives taken combating some foreign enemy, in this conflict every death was an American death.
As President Lincoln acknowledged the blood-soaked soil beneath his feet at Gettysburg, he said it was the responsibility of the living to carry the torch of the dead, “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
That’s why we have Memorial Day.