Seven score and 10 years ago, Waterloo, New York, held what is considered to be the first Memorial Day observation. And what began as a day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War Soldiers has grown into an occasion to solemnly remember those whose lives were lost in combat serving in our nation’s conflicts.
Originally called Decoration Day, the observance was first held on May 30 in Northern states, as that was not the anniversary of a Civil War battle. Southern states honored their Civil War dead on different days until after World War I, when the nation expanded the tradition to commemorate all American service members who perished in the nation’s wars.
Congress established that Memorial Day would be held the last Monday of May back in 1971, when the observance also became a federal holiday.
The Civil War and World War I stand as bookends, of sorts, for Memorial Day, and Wisconsin was an active participant in both conflicts.
Wisconsin would send more than 90,000 volunteers to fight in the Civil War, on battlefields in places like Shiloh and Antietam, Bull Run and Gettysburg. Many of those volunteers fought their way into the history books in units such as the Iron Brigade of the West, and the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment with its bald eagle mascot, Old Abe. The 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment included a 17-year-old officer named Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor recipient who inspired his regiment by planting the unit colors atop Missionary Ridge and shouting “On Wisconsin!”
It would be at Camp MacArthur near Waco, Texas, a little more than a half-century later, that the Wisconsin National Guard and Michigan National Guard would form the 32nd Infantry Division. Some Wisconsin National Guard units carried the lineage of heroic Civil War regiments into the fighting in Europe — and it would appear that they also carried the courage and determination of their Civil War forebears.
The 32nd Division was the first American unit to conduct armed patrols in Germany during World War I, and earned the nickname “Les Terribles” — meaning terrifying or formidable — from the French. The 32nd also earned another nickname, the Red Arrow, during World War I because it pierced every enemy line it encountered. In the final month of “the war to end all wars,” the 32nd Division was the first Allied Army unit to break through the Hindenberg Line and advance to the Meuse River. The Red Arrows were still fighting the Germans when the Armistice of Compiegne was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.
Approximately 12,000 Wisconsin Soldiers lost their lives in the Civil War, and roughly 2,250 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers would perish in World War I. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 10 Wisconsin Army National Guard members have lost their lives in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. I think about them every day, as well as the thousands of other Americans who gave their lives to preserve and protect our nation.
The Declaration of Independence holds that liberty is an inalienable right endowed by our Creator, but liberty endures in large part because throughout the history of our nation, brave men and women have stood up against those who would steal or infringe on that right.
That is why we do not celebrate Memorial Day — we commemorate it. As our nation grows, fewer and fewer of us put on the military uniform. The burden of defending our nation is borne by fewer and fewer Americans. And while we should absolutely continue to enjoy those liberties available to us in the United States, we should also honor those who cannot be here to share those liberties with us, and remember the families for whom Memorial Day will never be a celebration.