May 25: Memorial Day and the First Battle of Winchester
Memorial Day, a day to honor and mourn those who died serving in the Armed Forces, originated in the years following the Civil War, through it did not become a federal holiday until 1971. The Civil War caused more bloodshed than any other conflict in U.S. history, claiming the lives of about 500,000 soldiers. After the war, Americans began holding tributes to fallen soldiers every Spring. Memorial Day later expanded to honor those who lost their lives in other conflicts and wars.
By coincidence, Memorial Day this year falls on May 25, the 158th anniversary of the First Battle of Winchester. In March 1862, Federal forces took occupation of Winchester. Tempers were high and bloodshed was higher when Stonewall Jackson’s troops took the city back in a bloody battle two months later. Julia Chase, one of the diarists of Civil War Winchester, describes how even civilians were shooting at Federal soldiers. The Confederate army lost 400 lives that day, and the Union army lost about 2,000—nearly a third of the force.
In a time when Memorial Day has come to mean the start of summer, why is it so important to stop and reflect on bloodshed and death? Why even reflect on history at all? It is because the past holds the key to the future. When we remove our rose-colored glasses, we are given the opportunity to see the tragedies of the past, and their implications, more clearly.
The world today is built organically out of the world of the past; there never has been as distinct a boundary between “then” and “now” as we would like to believe. We can still make the same mistakes, so we must learn from the mistakes of the past. We can still suffer tragedies, which is why we must stop and mourn the tragedies of the past.
Not only that, but the greatness of our world today comes as a result of those brave persons who died defending their homes and beliefs; it is also in gratitude that we reflect on the tragedies of the past. As the popular saying goes, “America is the home of the free because of the brave.” Remember that fact, remember that the present and the future grow naturally out of the past, and think for a moment on the heroism of our fallen military personnel before you light your barbecue and enjoy the present moment.
----- “Civil War Centennial, 1960-1965” 1471-16c thl. Company K, 5th Virginia Infantry, Stonewall Brigade Re-enactment Unit Recor, 1471 THL, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library & Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society.
----- “First Battle of Winchester” in Shenandoah Valley Battlefields. The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District, n.d. http://www.shenandoahatwar.org/…/first-battle-of-winchester/ (accessed May 19, 2020).
History.com editors. “Memorial Day” in HISTORY. A&E Television Networks, May 18, 2020. www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history (accessed May 19, 2020).
Quarles, Garland R. Occupied Winchester 1861-1865. Winchester, VA: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1991.