Memorial Day 2016

This entry is part of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

I wrote this post in 2012 for Memorial Day. It is well worth reprinting in memory of all those who fought and died to make the United States the free nation that it is today.

When I was younger, Memorial Day was sometimes referred to as Decoration Day. It was the day that was set aside by a grateful nation to decorate the graves of our honored dead. It wasn’t meant for sales, outdoor barbecues and games.

The original Decoration Day was first proclaimed by General John Logan, the first national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in General Order #11 on May 5, 1868. The United States was barely three years past the end of the Civil War.

Perhaps 750,000 Americans, North and South, had perished on battlefields and in John A. Loganhospitals. Untold numbers had been crippled. Not a single town across this great land had been spared.

Mothers had lost sons; sometimes as many as five in the case of Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Boston, Massachusetts. Abraham Lincoln’s letter to her is featured in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. (It now appears that she only lost two of her five sons.) The Union veterans were looking for a dignified way to honor their fallen comrades. Logan gave them that way.


General Order No. 11

Headquarters, Grand Army of the Republic Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868

I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism or avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, ‑‑ the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander‑in‑Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.

By command of: JOHN A. LOGAN, Commander-in-Chief .

N. P. CHIPMAN, Adjutant-General.

The Price of Freedom-Memorial DayUntil 1882 the day was called Decoration Day. New York was the first state to make it a legal holiday. By 1890 all of the northern states had followed suit. The southern states had their own Memorial Day. The National Holiday Act of 1971 changed the whole feel of Memorial Day from a one-day commemoration of the nation’s war dead to a three-day holiday weekend.

“There are no better teachers for those who come after us than the silent monuments on the battlefields, marking the places where men died for a principle they believed right, whether they wore the blue or the gray uniform.”
Major Wells Sponable, 34th New York Monument dedication at the Antietam battlefield.

So when you’re flipping that burger, eating that hot dog or cruising the mall, please have a thought for those who lie beneath the ground that they defended with their lives. Remember that the price of freedom has been very high. Remember that was paid for in the blood of American patriots. When you see a service member be sure to thank them for their service to our country.



Michael Patrick Murphy

This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Michael Patrick MurphyThere were hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides who joined the armies for a variety of reasons. They came home safely and continued their lives. Michael Patrick Murphy was one such soldier.

An Irish immigrant, he arrived in New York with his brother Patrick in December 1852 on the ship “New World”. Early on he was a bell hanger. It seems that he married Margaret Kelly in Ireland but she must have come over on a different ship. In April 1853 their first child was born, John Stephen. Stephen was his father’s name. Three more children followed: Julia, Thomas and Margaret with Catherine in 1863 following his return from the Army.

In the summer of 1861 Michael enlisted in the Union Army with the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry. He was about 32 years old at the time. It was quite an advanced age in an era when most soldiers were 18 to 30. He was probably elected as the fifth sergeant of Company D due to his age. Mike Murphy stood at 5’9″ with dark hair and blue eyes. In the Union Army during the Civil War sergeants served as file closers in battle and paymasters, quartermasters and other mundane jobs in camp. By mid 1862 he had been promoted to third sergeant.

The 61st NY, 800 strong, left New York in the fall of 1861 and was assigned to the Army of the Potomoc. The regiment was stationed for a short time in Washington, but moved on November 28 – with Howard’s brigade, Sumner’s division – to Manassas in Virginia.  In March of 1862 the 61st N.Y., as part of Howard’s brigade, became part of the 1st division, 2ndcorps, Army of the Potomac.

In the early spring of 1862, the 61st moved on to the Peninsula (Va.) campaign and took part in the siege operation at Yorktown and for the first time became closely engaged in battle at Fair Oaks.  Of the 432 men who went into action, 104 were killed or wounded and 6 were reported missing.  Colonel Francis C. Barlow, who had replaced Colonel Cone (who had resigned), led the regiment into battle.  By the end of this campaign, known as the Seven Days Battles, the 61st gathered at Harrison’s Landing with even greater losses. The 61st fought in most of the battles during the Seven DaysFrancis Barlow campaign including the Battle of Malvern Hill where Robert E. Lee first commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

After several months of rest, drilling and replenishment (from recruiting), the 61st and the Army of the Potomac were in the thick of it, blocking General Lee’s invasion of the North at Sharpsburg, Maryland. We know it as Antietam and by the end of September 17, 1862 it was the ‘Bloodiest Day’ in American history. At least 23,000 men on both sides were killed or wounded.

As Gen. John C. Caldwell’s brigade advanced around the right flank of the Confederates, Col. Francis C. Barlow and 350 men of the 61st and 64th New York saw a weak point in the line and seized a knoll commanding the sunken road. This allowed them to get enfilade fire into the Confederate line, turning it into a deadly trap. In attempting to wheel around to meet this threat, a command from Gen. Robert Rodes was misunderstood by Lt. Col. James N. Lightfoot, who had succeeded the unconscious Col. John Gordon. Lightfoot ordered his men to about-face and march away, an order that all five regiments of the brigade thought applied to them as well. Confederate troops streamed toward Sharpsburg, their line lost.

In the same day’s battle, Colonel Barlow was wounded and was immediately succeeded by Colonel Nelson A. Miles, an equally brave and gallaThe Sunken Road nt soldier.

Before the battle Sgt. Murphy was assigned to escort six sick men to the military hospital at Harpers Ferry. After a long march he was told that the men couldn’t be admitted because they weren’t sick enough. He reversed course and set off after the army which was now heading to Sharpsburg, Maryland and their fateful encounter with the Confederates. By the time that he rejoined his unit all six men had fallen by the wayside. According to his later affidavit Murphy was the only sergeant left in his company, the others having died of sickness, been discharged or deserted. His description of their action is worth repeating. “We forded the creek and lined up on a rocky ground. We had it hot for some time”. General McClellan insisted that the creek couldn’t be forded and used that as an excuse not send in his 30,000 reserves to break the Southern line and possibly end the war. The adjoining picture illustrates the damage that the 61st and the 64th caused among the Confederate troops in the “Sunken Road”.

After the battle Sgt. Murphy complained of chest pain so his company commander sent him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart ailment. He received a medical discharge in October 1862 and returned to New York where he resumed his life. In 1863 he and Margaret’s youngest child, Catherine, was born. The following year Margaret Kelly Murphy died at 35 on August 17th. Michael Murphy did not remarry for thirty years.

Murphy was a founder of two chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic. He eventually became a prominent Real Estate broker in Westchester County, New York, buying and selling many properties. He was also elected First Justice of the Peace for Westchester County in the 1890’s. The poor Irish immigrant was known as Squire Murphy until his death in 1902.

You may wonder how I know so much about one soldier. You see a piece of him is in me, he was my great-great grandfather and everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendents have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.