Commentary: Memorial Day and its meaning

Opinion May 24, 2011 0 Comments

by Meredith F. Sonderskov
This year marks the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the Civil War, 1861-65. Approximately 620,000 Americans died in that war – a number that exceeds our losses in all other wars from the Revolution through Vietnam.

Are you aware that the first Memorial Day dedication in Philadelphia was at Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1868? Or that Gen. George G. Meade, (buried at Laurel Hill) the “hero of Gettysburg,” was at one time a resident of Chestnut Hill? (Meade Street is named for him.)

Originally called “Decoration Day” and observed as a time to decorate the graves of those who had died during the Civil War, Memorial Day became a federal holiday in the late 1800s and eventually became a time to remember all those who had died in any war. The date started out as May 30 but was changed by an Act of Congress in 1971 to the fourth Monday in May.

While doing some research here in the Chestnut Hill Historical Society archives, I came across lists of burials in the Chestnut Hill Baptist and Methodist cemeteries. Are any of the names mentioned familiar to you? Relatives perhaps? A search on Google provided information about their units. If you want to do some research online, there is much more about Civil War participants now than there was even a few years ago.

The CHHS archives are filled with all kinds of Chestnut Hill history. If you are looking for information about early settlers, early 20th-century photos of many local houses, or maps showing original property owners – we have them, and much more.

Chestnut Hill churchyard burials, Civil War soldiers and vets, compiled in 1936

Baptist Church:

(first name unreadable) Sands, 7th Pennsylvania Reserves; Henry C. Emery, died June 2, 1899, aged 68 years, served in the 20th Maine Volunteers; Howard M. Sands, son of Reuben and Catharine Sands, served in the Anderson Cavalry, died in Louisville, Ky., July 16, 1863, from disease contracted in the service.

Methodist Church:

H. A. McBride, 119th Pennsylvania Infantry; John N. Hart, son of Christopher and Elizabeth Hart, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, born November 23, 1845, died October 11, 1864.

Other local churches were contacted, but were unable to locate lists of Civil War veterans from their congregations. The CHHS archives welcomes and encourages your donations of family records to preserve community history, and if you want to keep the originals we will make copies for our files.

With thousands of bodies resulting from the various battles, the practitioners of embalming were in heavy demand, according to Anna Dhoty, curator of the Műtter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Most of the war was fought in the South, and families of Union soldiers wanted their loved ones returned home for burial. The railroads would not accept bodies that had not been embalmed – decomposition sets in within 24 hours, so there was danger of disease as well as the stench of decaying flesh. Many of the dead were buried where they fell, but those who had paid in advance for the services of the “embalming surgeons” were embalmed and shipped home.

Philadelphia had many pre-war connections with the South. Cotton and flax grown in the South were shipped to textile mills in this area. Many shipping companies were also owned by Philadelphians. Philadelphians often married into prominent Southern families, especially those in Charleston, S.C., and Richmond, Va.

In my own family, both sides of the conflict were represented. One great-grandfather, a Virginian married to a Philadelphian, signed on with Mosby’s Raiders, a small group of Confederate guerrillas who blew up bridges and railroads in Virginia to prevent supplies and troops from reaching Gen. Grant at the siege of Vicksburg, Miss. Mosby’s men did not wear uniforms because they would have been shot if captured.

Another of my great-grandfathers, who lived in western Pennsylvania, served as an officer with the Union Army in the 112th and 189th regiments of the Pennsylvania Volunteers and took part in the siege of Petersburg, just outside Richmond.

Here we are, 150 years later. Memorial Day has become a three day weekend holiday marking the beginning of summer. Stores offer “huge” sales, tender plants can be put in the garden with no fear of frost, and we can wear white shoes until Labor Day. On this Memorial Day let’s take a few minutes to recall the sacrifices made by all those who have defended our country and its ideals. May we deserve their final gift.

Meredith Sonderskov is a member of the board of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and chair of its Collection Committee.

 

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