Memorial Day is the most solemn of our national holidays. The solemn tribute began in 1866 when three women from Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers there and at the same time laid flowers on the graves of the Union soldiers buried in the cemetery. At the insistence of his wife, General John Logan, then Army Chief of Staff, issued an official order shortly thereafter proclaiming Memorial Day an annual day of remembrance for our nation’s war dead.
From the days of the Revolution, through the struggles of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and the present War on Terror, the strength of our nation is in the spirit of its men and women who fought and died for a nation determined to know its ancient liberty. 4,435 combat deaths in the Revolutionary War, 2,260 in the War of 1812, 1,733 in the Mexican War, 140,415 on the Union side in the Civil War, 74.524 on the Confederate, 385 in the Spanish-American War, 53,513 in World War I, 292,131 in World War II, 33,667 in the Korea War, 47,393 in the Vietnam War and 148 in the Persian Gulf War. Over 4,477 have died as a direct result of hostile action in Iraq, with 2,227 more in Afghanistan. The loss of life to American military men and women in all of our nation’s wars exceeds 1,340,000.
On the first few days after D-Day in June 1944, 6,603 Americans died in combat; 4,000 alone on the first day. Iwo Jima, lying midway between Guam and Japan, is less than five miles long. On that island, a detachment of Japanese troops were ordered to dig in the mountain fortress and to die to the last man. The assault on the island was the fiercest landing fight the world has ever seen. The Japanese kept up an incessant rain of death upon the attacking American troops on the beaches. Navy and Marine casualties exceeded 22,000; the Japanese counted more than 20,000 dead.
On the sacred soil of Gettysburg, the battlefield was a sea of carnage. In three days of fighting, Confederate losses were 3,900 killed, and 24,000 wounded and missing; Union losses were 3,100 killed, and 20,000 wounded or missing. Those soldiers listed as missing simply vanished, ground up in battle disappearing into the soil. In November 1863, several months after the battle of Gettysburg, its military cemetery was dedicated. There are 120 national military cemeteries in our nation. From Arlington on the Potomac to the Golden Gate , from St. Augustine in Florida to Sitka, Alaska, as well as on many other burial grounds elsewhere around the world. The war cemeteries in Normandy hold the remains of 9,386 American soldiers. On hallowed soil, as in the hearts of the American people, the memory of these gallant men and women, who made the supreme sacrifice, is enshrined forever. In a letter written by President Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby, who lost five sons in the Civil War, the President wrote: “May our Heavenly Father assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”
On this Memorial Day we must not mourn that these men and women died, but rather, we thank God that such as they lived.