Antique Memorial Day postcards are among the most evocative piece of vintage ephemera you can collect. With their elegant imagery mixing both patriotism and remembrance of those who died in service of this country, they are almost uniformly somber but almost uplifting at the same time.
The postcards on display here mostly date from the first few decades of the 20th century, when the holiday was more often known as Decoration Day. That’s due to its roots as a day to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. Not coincidentally, these cards are heavy on the Civil War imagery.
I’m currently in the middle of re-watching the excellent Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, so this particular item feels extra significant to me at the moment. It’s The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, published for an Anti-Slavery Fair in 1846 and created by Quakers Hannah and Mary Townsend of Philadelphia. The alphabet consists of sixteen leaves, printed on one side, with the printed pages facing each other and hand-sewn into a paper cover. Each of the letter illustrations is hand-colored.
The target audience for this book, as you might expect, was children who the Townsends hoped would adopt an Abolitionist point of view. History tells us, of course, that it would take more than 20 years and a bloody Civil War for the Abolitionists’ dream to become reality.
Even if you’re not a history freak like I am, you should take some time to acknowledge that today is a pretty big anniversary. Exactly 150 years ago today — April 12, 1865 for the math-challenged — that the American Civil War began when forces from the Confederate States of America (CSA) launched an attack on the Federal outpost of Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
34 hours after the battle began Union forces, under the command of Major Robert Anderson, surrendered to Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates. Neither side suffered any casualties during the battle, although two Union officers died after a gun explosion during the April 14 surrender ceremony.
Following the Union defeat President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteer soldiers for 90 days, as the scale of the Southern rebellion still seemed relatively small. By the end of the war four years later, more than 620,000 soldiers had died.
Charleston Harbor — of which Fort Sumter was a part — was completely in Confederate hands for almost all of the Civil War, leaving a hole in the Union naval blockade. Union forces conducted major operations in 1862 and 1863 to capture Charleston, first overland on James Island (the Battle of Secessionville, June 1862), then by naval assault against Fort Sumter (the First Battle of Charleston Harbor, April 1863), then by seizing the Confederate artillery positions on Morris Island (beginning with the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, July 1863, and followed by a siege until September).
After pounding Sumter to rubble with artillery fire, a final amphibious operation attempted to occupy it (the Second Battle of Fort Sumter, September 1863), but was repulsed and no further attempts were made. The Confederates evacuated Fort Sumter and Charleston in February 1865 as Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman outflanked the city in the Carolinas Campaign. On April 14, 1865, four years to the day after lowering the Fort Sumter Flag in surrender, Robert Anderson (by then a major general, although ill and in retired status) raised it over the fort again.
For those who don’t care for all that fancy book learnin’ I just laid on you, you can watch this animated Fort Sumter map video from the Civil War Trust instead.
This post was originally published on Veterans Day 2008, and has proven to be one of my more popular entries. So I’m bringing it back as my small tribute for this year.
Originally known as Armistice Day, the first Veterans Day was celebrated on November 11, 1938 — the 20th anniversary of the effective end of World War I. Starting in 1954 the scope of the holiday was expanded to commemorate all those who had fought and served for the United States.
I don’t have any stirring essays in me, so my small tribute to our armed forces is this collection of images portraying the history of American military conflict. Thank you all for your service!
American Revolutionary War (1775–1783)
The Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776) was a turning point in the American Revolution, as General George Washington led his demoralized troops across the Delaware River and captured 1,000 Hessian soldiers. Washington and his soldiers followed up that surprise attack with another victory a week later in Princeton.
War of 1812 (1812-1815)
The vaunted British Royal Navy suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of the much younger and smaller U.S. Navy on August 19, 1812 when the USS Constitution bested the HMS Guerriere after a 35-minute battle. A year later the American defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to compose the poem that became the basis for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Mexican–American War (1846-1848)
The Mexican-American War was a politically contentious issue, although it did vastly increase both the size of the U.S. Army and the United States itself. The Battle of Monterrey (September 21-24, 1846) was fought effectively to a stalemate, although a two-month armistice agreement signed between General Pedro de Ampudia (Mexico) and General Zachary Taylor (United States) saw the Mexican Army surrender the city of Monterrey.
American Civil War (1861-1865)
The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862) was the first major engagement of the Civil War to take place on Northern soil. Approximately 23,000 soldiers died that day, making it the single bloodiest day in American combat history. This photo shows President Abraham Lincoln visiting the battlefield on October 3.
Spanish–American War (April 25 – August 12, 1898)
The Spanish-American War lasted for just over 100 days (April-August 1898) and is remembered mainly for two things — the controversial destruction of the USS Maine (which became a major pretext for the war) and the rise to fame of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Roosevelt rode a wave of popularity first to the governorship of New York (elected in November 1898) and then the White House (elected as William McKinley’s Vice President in 1900).
World War I (1914-1918)
Despite a firm and official policy of isolationism during the first few years of World War I, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson could no longer ignore German aggression and Congress finally declared war on April 6, 1917. The Germans were convinced that it would take at least 18 months before America could muster enough forces to make an impact, and hoped to win the war in the interim. By the summer of 1918, however, 10,000 Americans were arriving in France daily.
World War II (1939-1945)
Without question, World War II was our finest hour as a fighting nation since the American Revolution. As with World War I, the U.S. resisted involvement at first but eventually relented. This time the turning point was not a German act of hostility, but the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. During the war more than 16 million Americans served in the military, with 290,000 killed in action and 670,000 wounded.
Korean War (1950-1953)
It’s difficult to understand how a war that resulted in so many casualties was so easily forgotten in this country, but that seems to be the case for the Korean War. Although the Koreans and Chinese suffered the most casualties, it is still important to remember that more than 36,000 Americans died and nearly 100,000 were wounded in the conflict.
Sadder still is that after all those deaths, the war is technically not even over. North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty, and have been under a tentative cease fire agreement for more than half a century.
Vietnam War (1955-1975)
I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the background and conduct of the Vietnam War, as well as debating whether we should have fought it in the first place. Certainly no war in our nation’s history — save the Civil War — has so sharply divided this country. But for at least one day I will put all that aside to remember the nearly 60,000 U.S. dead, 2,000 missing, and 300,000+ wounded. You will never be forgotten!
Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991)
In many ways, the first Gulf War (aka Operation Desert Storm) is still being fought, as many of the veterans from that war still suffer today. Speaking of which…
Iraq War (2003-2011)
Not since the Vietnam War has American military involvement been so controversial at home and around the world as with our 2003 invasion of Iraq. It will be years, however, before the long-term ramifications of the war will be known.
War in Afghanistan (2001-present)
Today the eyes of the nation are on our fighting men and women serving in Afghanistan. Our invasion of that nation (code named Operation Enduring Freedom) was prompted mainly by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and had the initial goal of dismantling al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power. However much our feelings and opinions on the war there may differ, I think we can all hope that ultimately our soldiers can return home safely. Currently the plan is to withdraw the bulk of our forces by December 2014, which would make it the longest major armed conflict in our military history.
Thank you, veterans!
(watch this video for Veterans Day 2010, produced by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)
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The January/February 2008 issue of The History Channel Magazine (yes I subscribe) features some excellent content to commemorate Black History Month – a profile of prominent lawyer and rights activist William Henry Lewis and an expose of so-called sundown towns among them.
So imagine my dismay when I saw a full-page ad in the same issue for this:
Yeah I know that the reasons for the secession of the Southern states and the Civil War are numerous and complicated, but come on. This really is too much. Without even commenting on the utter tackiness of the ring itself – which I would expect to be worn by someone appearing on an episode of Cops – am I the only one who finds it a tad inappropriate that this thing is being advertised in the same issue of a magazine that shows pictures of a KKK rally and the 1921 Tulsa race riot?
To the magazine’s credit, at least they’re consistent. The March/April issue features a full-page ad for – I kid you not – a Confederate cuckoo clock (complete with a sculpture of Robert E. Lee) that announces the time with a miniature cannon.