Memorial Day Through the Years: Remembering the Fallen
“Once Lost, Now Found, Never Forgotten.”
So reads the card tucked into flowers that appear each year on grave #540 in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Sergeant Jerome Peirce of the 36th Massachusetts Infantry was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 12, 1864, leaving behind a wife, Albinia, and a daughter, Lucy. He was buried in a temporary grave before his remains were moved to the national cemetery. In 1919, Albinia sent $100 to cemetery Superintendent Andrew Birdsall, also a Civil War veteran, asking him to use the interest earned on the fund to decorate Peirce’s grave each year. Birdsall, and later his descendants, have quietly and faithfully fulfilled the request at Memorial Day every year since.
As the card on Peirce’s grave suggests, he was fortunate among his fallen comrades to have a marked gravesite. In a battle’s aftermath, the dead were often buried in hasty, shallow graves, if buried at all. Only soldiers whose bodies had some form of identification or whose fellow soldiers recognized or recovered their bodies rested in marked graves on the battlefield. After the war, the federal government scrambled to bury the Union dead, first in small cemeteries and later in organized, concentrated “national cemeteries.” White Southern women formed associations to organize and re-inter Confederate soldiers. The task of identifying the dead became more difficult with the passage of time and in some cases, exposure to the elements. Countless grim markers in National and Confederate cemeteries alike told the same story: Unknown.
Known or unknown, each soldier’s life or death was meaningful to someone. Former enslaved African Americans were among the first to honor the Union soldiers they viewed as liberators and comrades-in-arms. Many historians cite May 1, 1865, as the first Memorial Day, when 10,000 individuals, mostly freed men and women, held a ceremony to honor the dead Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina. More formal commemorations grew from these early gatherings in both the North and South. Ceremonies often included a keynote speaker and laying flowers on graves, much as they do today.
By the mid-1870s, national efforts to reconcile North and South were taking hold across the country. Many communities abandoned the narrative of emancipation that placed Union soldiers as liberators in favor of embracing the former Confederacy to honor both sides. Against the protests of Union veterans and African Americans, many Americans hoped to take a less divisive stance by obscuring the war’s root cause of slavery and the objectives of each nation. Honoring the war’s fallen soldiers collectively seemed to offer an opportunity for white civilians to reconcile.
By the 1890s, Memorial Day was a noteworthy holiday across much of the country, and the tradition has continued through the passing decades. Commemorations today range from simple ceremonies to elaborate displays, like the annual Fredericksburg National Cemetery Illumination, which lights 15,000 candles—one in honor of each soldier buried within its walls. We have also reinstated the traditional procession up to the cemetery on Memorial Day begun by African Americans in Fredericksburg.
On Memorial Day, we gather to honor our fallen soldiers in national and private cemeteries across the country, bound back together by time and more wars and conflicts. We remember women and men like Jerome Peirce and the rows of unknown soldiers who sacrificed for our futures. Our actions link us into the chain of love and honor passed down by generations. Just as Albinia Peirce and Andrew Birdsall ensured for Jerome Peirce: Never Forgotten.
Looking for your closest national cemetery? Did you know that the National Park Service manages 14 cemeteries across the country? Read more about the national cemeteries.
Beth Parnicza serves as a park historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Fredericksburg, Va. Born a true Mountaineer, she graduated from West Virginia University before crossing the mountains to the "other" Virginia to pursue her passion for Civil War History. Her love for the National Park Service was born in her appreciation of battlefield preservation and interpretation but has grown to include a love of hiking, breathtaking wilderness, and countless adventures in parks.