These honored dead

A Memorial Day tribute to the unknown soldiers of the Civil War

click to enlarge Mark Flotow of Springfield is author of In Their Letters, In Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home. Southern Illinois University Press, 2019.
Mark Flotow of Springfield is author of In Their Letters, In Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home. Southern Illinois University Press, 2019.

May 30 is Memorial Day. For many decades it was better known as Decoration Day, a day to honor fallen Civil War soldiers – South and North – by "decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." That's how the Grand Army of the Republic – a Union postwar fraternal organization – put it in 1868.

Where are all those Civil War graves now, for strewing with flowers and planting flags? Some are in active and well-cared-for cemeteries, of course, but many are not. The dead from the Civil War's many battlefields were often quickly and carelessly handled, during a time when there were no dog tags or other required identification. It was common for the victors to tend to the battlefield's wounded and dead. Usually, the enemy's dead were buried in trenches or other mass graves, without identification, to expedite the grim task as much as possible.

An Illinois soldier distinctly remembered the post-battle mass-interment process, well over a year after its occurrence.

Corinth, Mississippi, Aug. 7, 1863, to sister

At the battle field of Shiloah [Tennessee] they took big government waggons, and hauled the dead men together, the same as you would haul hay up north, the wagons would hold about 25 or 30 men, and they would put from 6 to 8 loads in a place It took a week to get them all burried. —Private Almon Hallock, 15th Cavalry, LaSalle County

It is no wonder there are likely many tens of thousands of unmarked graves from the Civil War era. In addition, there were instances, like after the Battle of the Wilderness, Virginia, where many dead soldiers were not buried at all. And not all soldiers who died in combat were upon large-scale battlefields.

In some locations, where soldiers had been buried in farmers' fields, their mortal remains were plowed and scattered in subsequent years. Shortly after the war, the U.S. government started reburying the dead from the larger battlefields, albeit unevenly regarding those from the South versus those from the North. In all cases, individual identification was spotty if not impossible. Currently, there also are the numerous markers and monuments to the "unknown soldier(s)" from the Civil War, which are fitting reminders in their own way.

Given all of the above, how can we, today, honor the Civil War dead, especially those who remain unknown or unlocated? My simple suggestion is to read Walt Whitman's 1865 poem, "Pensive on Her Dead Gazing," as a fitting Civil War soldier tribute on Memorial Day.

Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, by Walt Whitman

Pensive on her dead gazing I heard the Mother of All, Desperate on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-field gazing, (As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger'd,) As she call'd to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk'd, Absorb them well O my earth, she cried, I charge you lose not my sons, lose not an atom, And you streams absorb them well, taking their dear blood, And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly impalpable, And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers' depths, And you mountain sides, and the woods, where my dear children's blood trickling redden'd, And you trees down in your roots to bequeath to all future trees, My dead absorb or South or North – my young men's bodies absorb, and their precious precious blood, Which holding in trust for me faithfully back again give me many a year hence, In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence, In blowing airs from the fields back again give me my darlings, give my immortal heroes, Exhale me them centuries hence, breathe me their breath, let not an atom be lost, O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet! Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence.

The many battlegrounds where soldiers' "precious precious blood" was lost are thus consecrated earth, streams, trees, airs and mountainsides, whether they be with or without marked graves. While I truly respect and honor all American soldiers in their graves on Memorial Day, I think the reading of Whitman's poem – written before there was a recognized Decoration Day – is an appropriate way to remember and cherish all those Civil War soldiers who lie without graves or without recognition, wherever they might rest across our nation. I plan to make it a personal habit to do so this Memorial Day and on each one hence.

Mark Flotow dedicates his book: "To Illinois' soldiers and sailors, past and present."

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