Memorial Day

I’m kind of a genealogy nerd. I’m actually one of a long line of genealogy nerds on both sides of my family. Because of this, family comes to me with all sorts of stuff from time to time — questions, information, artifacts, and pictures. I love it.

Some of my most treasured artifacts are copies of letters sent from my third great-grandfather, Edward Ellis, to his wife, Elizabeth, during the Civil War. They had two small children. Edward was a Union with the 115th Ohio Infantry, which defended railroad lines in Tennessee. He was eventually taken prisoner of war and sent to Andersonville prison camp, the most notorious of the war:

Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was known officially, held more prisoners at any given time than any of the other Confederate military prisons. It was built in early 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners in and around Richmond to a place of greater security and more abundant food. During the 14 months it existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements. …

By the end of June, 26,000 men were penned in an area originally meant for only 10,000 prisoners. The largest number held at any one time was more than 33,000 in August 1864. The Confederate government could not provide adequate housing, food, clothing or medical care to their Federal captives because of deteriorating economic conditions in the South, a poor transportation system, and the desperate need of the Confederate army for food and supplies.

These conditions, along with a breakdown of the prisoner exchange system between the North and the South, created much suffering and a high mortality rate. “There is so much filth about the camp that it is terrible trying to live here,” one prisoner, Michigan cavalryman John Ransom, confided to his diary. “With sunken eyes, blackened countenances from pitch pine smoke, rags, and disease, the men look sickening. The air reeks with nastiness.” Still another recalled, “Since the day I was born, I never saw such misery.”

Edward was lucky enough to survive the camp and be paroled to Vicksburg. From there, he wrote to his wife on April 12, 1865, their 10th wedding anniversary:

Just 10 years ago now I have the honor of being the husband of a true, loving, and affectionate wife, and I hope from this… I shall do my duty as a husband, father, and Christian more faithful than I have done the time past, and by the grace of God shall try and do better to try and lead a life that I would not be ashamed to have our children to imitate, we should let the trials and experiences we have gone through prove a benefit to us, and thank our Heavenly Father that it has been no worse with us.

Edward died on April 27, just days later, in the worst maritime disaster in US history.

Can you imagine how his wife must have felt, finding out that her husband was alive and coming home, only to have the reunion snatched away from her? Can you imagine the confusion and pain of their two children, growing up without their dad? And all of the things Edward must have suffered, the hope he must have felt after liberation, only to never return home. My heart aches for these people I’ve never met, and yet who are so close to me.

I’ve been thinking of Edward a lot this Memorial Day. Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” a tradition of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers in the springtime. Eventually the tradition expanded to include the graves of soldiers from other conflicts and came to be known as Memorial Day. Congress declared it a federal holiday in the 1970’s. Memorial Day is a day we set aside to remember those who gave what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” to their country. Those who died for our freedom.

In Memorial Day we have a tangible reminder that freedom is costly. We can visit the graves of those who gave the last full measure and ponder their suffering, the suffering of their families and loved ones, and do our best to honor their sacrifices.

But for Christians, every day should be a Memorial Day of sorts. Our ultimate freedom — freedom from sin, God’s wrath, and death — was paid with the precious blood of Jesus. How easy is it to forget! Especially today when much of Christian media peddles in messages of a needy Jesus who just wanted us to be with him in heaven. That’s not what Jesus was doing on the cross. Much like a soldier who goes off to war to protect something bigger than himself, Jesus submitted himself to the wrath of God on our behalf to show us God’s mysterious, glorious, redemptive plan. He loves us, of course! That’s why we needed to see the cross. We needed to see our need of Him. Not His need of us.

So today I’m thanking God for the tangible reminders of His grace in things like the temporal freedom in which I live today in the United States. Many, like Edward Ellis, sacrificed so that I can sit here and write this blog. I have done nothing to deserve any of the certain inalienable rights protected in our Constitution. I have done nothing to deserve true freedom and right standing before God. But by varying measures of mysterious grace I have both. He is so good!

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