Memorial Day, Observed

When I was a boy we called it Decoration Day. It was the day to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers. 

It was on held on May 30. They ran a 500-mile auto race the same day at Indianapolis.

Congress decreed the official name was Memorial Day, and that starting in 1971 it would be observed on the last Monday in May. Because people already thought of May 30 as Memorial Day, calendars said “Memorial Day” on May 30 and “Memorial Day (Observed)” on the last Monday of the month.

This year the last Monday happens to be May 30. 

Let me tell you what I observed.

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On May 29, one day before the general Memorial Day, we rededicated our statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, the Norwegian American hero who led the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. The larger-than-life statue had been toppled, dismembered, and thrown into a lake by rioters. Now, after two years, it is restored to its pedestal on the east approach to the state capitol.

Colonel Heg and some of his descendants.

Norwegians are happy and relieved. But not just Norwegians. Colonel Heg, who gave his life at Chickamauga, speaks to the aspirations of all nationalities—people who came here and without hesitation sacrificed their lives for their new homeland. Heg symbolizes the price of passage from an old life to a new one.

The ceremony was long—elaborate and drawn out to fit the mood of the occasion. The colonel was well and truly rededicated.

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On Monday, May 30, hundreds of people gathered at Union Rest, the cemetery-within-a-cemetery where 240 Union soldiers from the Civil War lie buried. A band played a number of selections, mostly military marches, with éclat. Speeches were made, salutes were rendered. The mood was solemn but not oppressive. Sunshine filtered through giant oaks, and a nice breeze riffled through the grounds.

The people present, many of us old but some young, did not seem to be there to celebrate the unofficial start of summer, or to take advantage of a Memorial Day blowout sale. No, we seemed to be there to pay our respects to those who died for us. 

A female veteran played Taps on a period bugle, with a nice tone and elegiac phrasing.

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After the ceremony, my wife and I were among those who hiked a hundred yards or so to view the graves at Confederate Rest, the other soldiers’ cemetery enclosed within Forest Hill. Low stones there mark the graves of 140 Confederate soldiers, most of them members of the 1st Alabama regiment who died in Union custody as prisoners at, or en route to, confinement here at Camp Randall. 

Along with the 140 dead soldiers is buried Alice Waterman. She was a Southern woman who, having relocated to Madison, took it upon herself to spruce up the gravesites during a period of official neglect in the late nineteenth century. 

Great controversy arose recently over these graves. In January 2019, a stone cenotaph etched with their names was removed from the cemetery by the Madison Parks Department and transferred to storage at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Yesterday, no echo of that strife sounded, nor did a single eyelash bat at the Stars and Bars flag posted at the entrance to the graves, where a young woman in period dress chatted with visitors. 

This is the northernmost Confederate graveyard in the nation.

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Memorial Day is not all about the Civil War, however. My friend Brian lost his son, a cavalry scout, to an improvised explosive device in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2006.

Brian has never gotten over it. Every Memorial Day is a fresh source of pain. Brian lives with it, but not quietly. Every year he explains patiently for those who may have forgotten, or who never knew: Memorial Day is not a happy day; nor is it a recognition for living veterans—we have our own day in November; nor yet a recognition for currently serving members of the military—they have their own day, too. 

Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen. Like Ryan.

Or like my two uncles, Stanley and Franklin. They died before I was born, one in the cockpit of a B-17 in the Southwest Pacific, the other in a B-26 over France.

Do I miss Stanley and Franklin? How could I miss them? I never even met them.

Yes, I miss them. Of course I miss them. The world misses them. 

And millions of others. 

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It’s good we have one day each year when we are brought back in touch with these facts, forced to think about our losses.

However, nobody’s really forcing us, Dear Reader. 

This is the Land of the Free. It’s up to you.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A War Against History

Hans Christian Heg, an immigrant from Norway, believed that black lives matter.

For this reason he became a leader of Wisconsin’s Wide Awakes, an anti-slave catcher militia. He sheltered Sherman Booth, who was made a federal fugitive after inciting a mob to rescue an escaped slave. He joined the Free Soil Party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western states. 

When the Free Soil Party merged into the new Republican Party, which also opposed the expansion of slavery, Heg became a Republican. When the Republican candidate became president and the slave-holding states of the South seceded, he went to work raising an army unit from his fellow Norwegians. His “thousand Norsemen” were mustered into service as the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the only all-Scandinavian regiment in the Union Army, with Heg at their head as colonel. 

Colonel Hans Christian Heg, in bronze, by Paul Fjelde. Public Domain.

He led the 15th in battle at Perrysville, Kentucky, and Stones River, Tennessee. In September 1863, at Chickamauga, Georgia, he “was shot through the bowels and died the next day.” Heg’s body was returned to Wisconsin and buried in the Norwegian Lutheran cemetery near Wind Lake.

In 1925, in conjunction with the centennial of Norwegian immigration to America, a bronze statue of Heg was installed at the state capitol in Madison. The bronze colonel has stood in silent witness to Norwegian-Americans’ contributions to freedom ever since.

Statue Toppled

But a few nights ago—June 23, 2020—a mob of citizens toppled Heg’s statue, dismembered it, and threw the pieces in Lake Monona. They had begun by protesting the disorderly-conduct arrest of a black man named Devonere Johnson and ended by destroying the statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg.

Many have pointed out the apparent incongruity of Black Lives Matter protesters destroying the statue of a leading abolitionist and Civil War hero. “These people must not know history,” they have said.

But surely the point here is that in the current uproar, historical judgments are irrelevant. History itself is the enemy. The bond between past and present sometimes becomes more visceral than philosophical. At such times, the strident present ransacks the mute past, seeking out victims. Ask any Bosnian.

There can be no distinction between a Hans Christian Heg and a Nathan Bedford Forrest when a noisy claque regards the whole past as merely a bogus excuse for a deplorable status quo.

Taking Revenge on the Dead

As the descendant of a Norwegian who died as a Union soldier in the Civil War, I have more than a casual interest in the fate of Colonel Hans Christian Heg.

It is bad enough they killed him at Chickamauga. Killing him all over again, by effigy,  assasinates his memory. It cannot injure Hans Christian Heg beyond the grave. But it is dispiriting to those of us who would like to suppose that Americans express themselves in rational ways. Obviously, that is not always so. 

The people destroying things now for racial harmony, like those destroying things fifty years ago for peace, may think they are igniting The Revolution. Their Marxist utopia did not come into being in those days. But our nation’s troubling racial divide is a more fertile ground for deep-seated conflict.

It’s unlikely there will be a revolution, but it’s easy to believe we are in for a long, hard time. It would be nice if some good came out of it all, but I don’t have that kind of faith.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author