Memorial Day Recap

I hope everyone enjoyed the lovely weather over Memorial Day weekend. As you probably know, the holiday was originally known as Decoration Day and it originated as a way of honoring the Civil War dead. Although most of us no longer visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, the parades and speeches that many of us attend are a continuation of traditions that began almost a hundred and fifty years ago.

I think the scope and scale of death in the Civil War is very hard for us to understand today. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died between 1861-1865, representing almost a quarter of those who served and 2% of the total U.S. population at the time. A similar death rate today, compared to current population, would be about six million. Drew Gilpin Faust makes the case in her book This Republic of Suffering that the very death-ness of the war was one of it’s most significant aspects for the people who actually lived through it. If you haven’t read Faust’s book, I highly recommend it; it’s one of the best Civil War books I’ve ever read and the fact that it was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award means I’m not the only one who thinks so. As a warm-up for the book you can read a great interview with Faust here or read an excerpt here.

Also in honor of Memorial Day I am posting a letter written from C.C. Price to the father of Elmer Ellsworth, who was one of the first soldiers killed in the war. Ellsworth was shot while attempting to remove a Confederate flag from a house in Arlington, Virginia on May 24, 861. His death became a rallying point for Union supporters and this letter is one many in our collection that demonstrate the outpouring of support for Ellsworth’s family. We will posting more of these letters as part of a special Civil War blog to mark the Civil War 150th, starting this fall.

It’s also worth noting that at the time of Ellsworth death people still thought the war would be short and casualties would be few and that they still had the ability to memorialize each soldier individually. This would become more and more difficult as the war progressed and the dead were counted not in ones or tens but in thousands and tens of thousands

C.C. Price to Ephraim D. Ellsworth. 27 May 1861. AMS 811/2.6


Hollidaysburg Blair Co. Pa. May 27/1861
To Colonell Ellsworths Father

My brother […] by this hallowed name. I address and solace offer you. It is not the prompting of the outward, my soul has been baptised and may I say almost overwhelmed in grief. my heart was maimed.. that he young noble and generous, beloved by all, should go down so soon, and in this way. to the nation the Cost is great, but the roots of the tree of liberty no common blood could take, it must be one on whome the affections of the nation was placed, that this sacrifice might bring us to a condition in which we the more plainly could see and feel the magnitude and importance of the work before us. and from that hour we looked with fresh hope with renewed encouragement and for better fruit. since the roots with greed have drank again of the precious blood of an American Marter, Ah the strong flow of soul, the unity of purpose. the determination to be avenged needs no more of provocation to lead us as one soul to the fount of liberty to baptise anew our souls in the living watters of American patriotism, notwithstanding when I contemplate the sad event the blood seems to tingle in my veins and the tear oozes from the briney socket and I exclaim

Great Good and was it he

This sacrifice should make

That incense might to heaven arise

This nation to awake

Twas fitting that a noble soul

Should in this contest fall

If any must be given up

In freedoms earnest call

I conclude with you in this great loss, and refer you to the true course for consolation with the true sympathy of a friend I close very Respectfully C. C. Price