Originally known as Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for those who died in service of our country, Memorial Day was begun as a time to honor the dead of the Civil War. First observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, it has grown into a day when Americans remember the fallen soldiers of all wars.
A few folks around our rural communities might recall Decoration Day parades, when veterans of the Civil War and subsequent conflicts, marched up Main Street and decorated the graves of the fallen veterans at local cemeteries. Dignitaries gave patriotic speeches, recalling the brave acts of the veterans. It was a solemn day when Americans recounted how fortunate we have been to have such brave souls fighting for our liberty.
While the traditions of Memorial Day have changed to more leisurely pursuits, the importance of the day has not diminished. We still honor our fallen veterans with flowers at their graves, speeches about their brave actions and services honoring their lives.
In our little town, like so many across the state and around the nation, we can boast our fair share of veterans of all American wars dating back to the Civil War. Nebraska wasn’t even a state when the Civil War began in 1861, but the territory offered one third of our population of men of military age at the time, 3157 men (and one woman as it turned out), to Union armies. No one serving in the First Nebraska Infantry or other Nebraska regiments was actually born in Nebraska, except perhaps those serving in the Native American units. The territory had just opened up to white settlers in 1854. But these brave souls, many farmers and ranchers, came together from locations around the world, a diverse cross-section of occupations, to fight for the Union. Thirty-five Nebraskans lost their lives during the Civil War.
Nebraskans in the Civil War served under General U.S. Grant in the early days of the war in great western Union victories at Fort Donnelson and at the bloody fields of Shiloh. They served in horrific guerilla skirmishes later on across Missouri and Arkansas. They fought against the Plains Indians on the frontier, until they were mustered out in 1866.
These first Nebraska soldiers served the territory and nation well during the Civil War, and set the stage for the farmers and ranchers and other Nebraskans who served bravely in Nebraska military units in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Iraq and Afghanistan and around the globe.
In many cases, small towns and farms and ranch families sent their sons and daughters who had barely left the home place before their service days, off to distant locations across the globe to protect their nation. Sometimes these young men and women returned alive, and at other times they did not. Some were victims of violent and bloody conflicts, only to be laid to rest back home in the most peaceful and quiet of rural cemeteries.
On this Memorial Day, as we enjoy good times with our families, as we watch our crops grow and our livestock grazing peacefully in the pastures, let us never forget the Americans who gave their lives in service to our nation so that we might do so. We honor them and bless them on this special day of remembrance.