Photoessay by Ryan Stancil & Baxter Miller
The unofficial start to summer is upon us. This year AAA Travel projects 37.2 million Americans will hit the road for Memorial Day weekend. Hotdogs and hamburgers will be in grilled in abundance. Umbrellas and stocked coolers will adorn the white sands of our coastline. Inner-tubes and slalom skis will dot the coves of our lakes. For a holiday weekend exalted for relaxation and celebration, it is easy for the significance of the day to pass us by. Amidst the revelry, let us pause to remember those who have given their life in service to protect the freedom of this nation.
One hundred fifty years ago, following the deaths of 620,000 Americans in the Civil War, our country began the process of rebuilding with the wounds of war and absence of loved ones fresh in its mind. And so Decoration Day, Memorial Day’s predecessor, began three years after the end of the Civil War when Major General John A. Logan, commander of The Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30th a day to decorate and adorn war veterans’ gravesites with flowers and small American flags. That year, 1868, marked the beginning of the first Decoration Day observance in Arlington National Cemetery where 5,000 people gathered to honor the fallen. Today, about the same crowd gathers to pay homage.
Following WWI, Decoration Day expanded to include veterans of all American Wars. In 1971, Memorial Day, a day to honor those who lost their lives during service, was officially recognized as a national holiday by an act of Congress. This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the 70th Anniversary of WWII, making the reverence of Memorial Day and the fallen heroes it honors particularly meaningful.
North Carolina’s rich, prolific military history stretches back to Colonial America. With seven military bases, representing four of the five military branches, our state is home to many servicemen and women selflessly protecting and defending the nation. According the NC Department of Commerce, North Carolina has the the third largest active duty population in the United States and is home to 769,000 veterans residing in all 100 counties. Since the American Revolution, our state has paid handsomely for the price of freedom losing over 53,000 of her sons and daughters to war from 1861 to 1975*.
There are few places more telling of the ravages of war than the hallowed grounds where 1.19 million American veterans are laid to rest. Join us as we enter the gates of New Bern National Cemetery, Raleigh National Cemetery, Oakwood Cemetery and Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery to reflect on the price of sacrifice. In the spirit of General Logan, let us:
According to the National Park Service, New Bern National Cemetery was established in 1867 north of downtown New Bern for the remains of Union Soldiers, 300 United States Colored Troops, and more than 1,050 unknown soldiers who died at the Battle of New Bern or nearby battles. Many of the remains presently located in the cemetery were originally buried throughout the Inner Banks region and relocated to the cemetery. Among the graves are four monuments to fallen Union Soldiers erected by Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
Today, more than 6,500 individuals are interred at New Bern National Cemetery which closed to new interments in 1996.
National cemeteries, in particular, hold an intangible solemn mystique. There are striking similarities amongst the headstones: unassuming in stature, minimalistic in appearance, symmetrically arranged in linear rows. The grounds are clean and manicured. Aside from the passing car, bird call or rustling of leaves, there is little acoustic invasion from the outside world. There’s a feeling of order and tranquility.
“Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
—Excerpt from Pericles’ Funeral Oration (431 BC) in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, Raleigh National Cemetery is, according to the National Park Service, one of five national cemeteries established in 1865 for burial of the Union soldiers. The cemetery was constructed while General Sherman occupied Raleigh.
“Today is the day we put aside to remember fallen heroes and to pray that no heroes will ever have to die for us again. It’s a day of thanks for the valor of others, a day to remember the splendor of America and those of her children who rest in this cemetery and others. It’s a day to be with the family and remember.”
–From President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Memorial Day Speech at Arlington National Cemetery
Oakwood Cemetery dates back to the 1860s. The 102-acre grounds contain a Confederate Cemetery which is located on the original two-and-a-half acres donated by Henry Moredcai in 1867. Interred upon the hill are nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers, many of whose graves are marked as unknown. Oakwood is the final resting place of four Confederate Generals and two Secretaries of the Navy.
Located on the same original two-and-a-half acres, adjacent to the Confederate Cemetery, sits the House of Memory - originally erected in 1935 in memory of the Confederacy. Today, the gothic structure sits in peaceful mediation recognizing all of our country’s brave service members.
In a general order to the Grand Army of the Republic, General Logan proclaims: “Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude — the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.”
Cemeteries evoke memories of things past. They serve as reminders of our people and history. They connect us with a former time. The Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery, currently under construction, stands in juxtaposition to this notion. Instead, the open lot, with vaults sitting patiently by the woodline, reminds us that death and war are not reserved for antiquity but a solemn reality of the present and future. Like New Bern and Raleigh National Cemeteries, this stretch of land on the outskirts of Goldsboro will one day lay to rest the honorable North Carolinians who make the ultimate sacrifice while courageously defending our nation. To those before and those to come, we owe gratitude and reverence.