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Vladimir Badmaev, MD PhD
Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday observed on the last Monday of May in honor of fallen warriors who died while serving in the U.S. military. Initially known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day's celebration started following the Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 13, 1865). The fratricidal Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and resulted in establishing the country's first national cemeteries. The profound psychological and emotional divide between the Southern (Confederate) and Northern (Union) states continued after the War ended.
The celebration of the first Decoration Day was on May 30, 1868, with the former Union General James Garfield (the 20th President on 1881), who addressed at Arlington National Cemetery some 5,000 participants who decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. While many Northern states held similar commemorative events, Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I, when the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
One of the remarkable figures in the history of the origins of Memorial Day is General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Military historians regard Jackson as the most gifted commander in U.S. history, whose military strategies and tactics military studies today.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson was born in Clarksburg, Virginia, on January 21, 1824, the third child of Julia Beckwith Jackson and Jonathan Jackson, an attorney. His great-grandparents, John Jackson and Elizabeth Cummins, arrived in America in "shackles' from England in 1749, sentenced with penal transfer to the Maryland colony.
The young Jackson and his siblings lost their father to typhoid fever and mother to post-partum complications early on in life, and Thomas and his sister Laura were cared for by their uncle Jackson-Cummins. In 1842, Jackson, with typical determination to overcome adversity, in particular inadequate schooling, was accepted to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Although he began his studies at the bottom of the class, he became known as one of the hardest working cadets in the academy. He moved steadily up the academic rankings to graduate 17th out of 59 students in the Class of 1846.
In 1861, after Virginia seceded from the Union, the American Civil War broke out. Colonel Jackson took command of the unit, which later gained fame as the "Stonewall Brigade," after his "Stonewall Jackson" nickname. The Civil War, which took place in 1861-65, was the greatest tragedy of the United States of America and cost loss of life of estimated 600,000 Americans. The War has sometimes been referred to as a war of "brother against brother," but it was brother against sister in the Jackson family. Laura Jackson Arnold was close to her brother Thomas, but her commitment was to the Union rather than her family when the Civil War erupted. She once said with bitterness that she "would rather know that he (referring to her brother) was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army." Laura's Union sentiment also estranged her from her husband, Jonathan Arnold.
One of the first memorable victories for Jackson was the Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of Manassas, on July 21, 1861. The battle was fought in Prince William County, Virginia, just north of Manassas and about 25 miles southwest of Washington, DC. The Confederate lines began to crumble under heavy Union assault. The commander of South Carolina troops, Gen. Barnard Elliott Bee Jr., rode up to Jackson shouting in despair, "They are beating us back!" with Jackson calling back, "we will give them the bayonet!". Then Bee mobilized the troops by shouting, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!" Jackson has since that event been known by his nickname "Stonewall Jackson."
On May 2, 1863, Jackson led his 30,000 Northern Virginia troops in a battle of the Chancellorsville (Spotsylvania County, VA, vicinity of Fredericksburg – Baltimore-Washington metropolitan. He met fierce resistance and was facing defeat by the Army of the Potomac under Major General Joseph Hooker. What followed next was Jackson's last battle. His troops went on an aggressive flanking maneuver to the right of the Union lines, in one of the most successful and dramatic maneuvers of the War, resulting in the retreat of the Union forces.
Sadly, that evening, while returning with his staff to the camp, Jackson was shot by friendly fire from Confederate troops placed on a line forward of a position to provide warning of an enemy advance. The general lost his left arm to amputation and, weakened by the hardship of battle and the wounds, succumbed to pneumonia and died eight days later on May 10, at age 39, in the plantation office building in Guinea Station, Virginia. General "Stonewall Jackson" was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery at downtown Lexington, Virginia, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery. The Jackson's arm amputated on May 2 was buried separately by Jackson's chaplain, Beverly Tucker Lacy, at the J. Horace Lacy house, "Ellwood", Orange County, near the field hospital Fredericksburg National Battlefield.
The U.S. military theorists suggested that if Jackson had lived, General Lee might have prevailed at the critical for the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They reasoned that Jackson's discipline and tactical sense would make a difference in winning in action.
At the onset of the War, Jackson recognized that the North, with three times the population of the South and eleven times its industry was so sure of victory that it had sent almost all its military forces to the South and left North undefended. Jackson reasoned that the South should attack unprotected eastern states to win, in other words, to attack the enemy where it is not. However, this brilliant strategy was rejected by a third-rate leader, Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Subsequently, Jackson developed a defensive war strategy based on two new weapons to made attacks against defended positions almost certain to fail. The single-shot rifle with a range four times that of the old gun and a "Napoleon" cannon could spew out clouds of metal fragments in the face of the advancing troops. Jackson envisioned a prolonged defensive battle where the Confederates would swing around the flanks of demoralized Northerners and force them to surrender.
General George Patton of WWII Battle of Bulge fame once told the five-star General of WWII Europe and later 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, "I will be your Jackson." The five-star General Douglas MacArthur of WWII Pacific front called Gen. Robert L. Eichelberger, the Southwest Pacific Area commander during WWII his "Stonewall Jackson." Gen. Alexander Vandegrift and Gen. Chesty Puller, both of Guadalcanal battle WWII fame, idolized Jackson, and the latter carried George Henderson's biography of Jackson during his military campaigns.
For decades, observances of Memorial Day continued on May 30, the date based on general John A. Logan's order (commander of the Union veterans) issued on May 5, 1868. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend holiday. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971. Each year on Memorial Day, a national moment of remembrance occurs at 3:00 p.m. local time.