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In memoriam

Published May 25, 2013 1:01 am

A day to count the cost of unity
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This year's celebration of Memorial Day falls near the midpoint of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. That this major milestone is drawing greater attention in the East than in the West is only natural. Ours is a region roughly half a continent removed from the awful carnage that forged a new Union and put an end to slavery.

In the West, there are no killing grounds on the scale of Cold Harbor, for example, where 7,000 attacking Union soldiers fell in windrows under Confederate canister and musket fire, most of them in the first 20 minutes.

There are no cemeteries nearby where a portion of the fallen are buried, or memorials honoring the many thousands who, before refrigeration, were buried hastily and haphazardly in unmarked, uncharted graves.

For more than a century's worth of Memorial Days, the best estimate of the Civil War dead remained fixed at 618,222, a number based primarily on battlefield reports, muster lists and pension records. But later historians came to see that the magnitude of the toll exacted by musket, cannon and disease prevented an accurate accounting, that the number was nothing more than an informed guess.

Just a year ago, though, new research based on digitized census data showed that the sum of the slain was likely 20 percent greater, that the bloodiest war in American history had claimed closer to three quarters of a million lives.

The Utah Territory was still 31 years from statehood when the arms were finally stacked. Today, there is a Utah Civil War Association and groups that perform battlefield re-enactments. Many were inspired by Ken Burns' epic 1990 documentary, "The Civil War," and the unprecedented flood of books that followed.

Yet, for the majority of Westerners today, epic battles fought far from the hills and ridges overlooking Gettysburg are recalled only sketchily, if at all. Not so in Georgia, of course, where Chickamauga claimed 34,624 casualties, second only to Gettysburg. Nor in Virginia, where, for the better part of two weeks, forces under Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and the Union's Ulysses S. Grant sustained 27,399 casualties between them at Spotsylvania Court House.

Memorial Day was established in 1868 as Decoration Day specifically to honor these dead. For many years it was observed in the Northern states and ignored in the states that had pledged allegiance to the Confederacy.

Down the decades, as the combatants died off, the Civil War dimmed in memory, and Memorial Day came to be celebrated pretty much the same everywhere. We might shop the sales, see a movie, begin a vacation, or just hang around the barbecue.

Yet, it is well that the cemeteries still explode in color as throngs of Americans pay homage to their dead with flowers and tiny flags, upholding the worthy tradition that defines the holiday. Some of these loved ones fell in wars that those bearing laurels survived, wars fought in jungles and deserts by the fallen fathers and friends, husbands and brothers of the living.

Owing to geography, graveyards in the West contain few Civil War remains, contributing to our disconnect with the most important event in our history save the birth of the Union. But we in Utah can, if we choose, transcend time and distance if we use the Sesquicentennial as a prompt for gaining a deeper understanding of the conflict that nearly ripped that Union asunder, but in the end made of us something more than just Virginians, or New Yorkers, or Utahns, for that matter.

From time to time we have used this space to mark this tragic, though perhaps necessary, war that so shaped the nation we are today. We do so in the hope that you, our readers, though distant from the hallowed grounds of Antietam and hundreds of other battles, might seek a deeper understanding of how the states of America were reunited by a sacrifice so dear that, a century and a half later, it can be repaid only by honoring its memory.