A century and a half ago — and a drive of about two and a half hours from Harford County in modern times — Union and Confederate forces were in the midst of positioning themselves to become the masters of Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers.
The troops converging in late May of 1862 on the town, then part of Virginia as West Virginia was in the process of being established by virtue of its counties being pro-Union even as the balance of the state became the seat of government for the rebellion, would clash on the Maryland side. Key to controlling Harpers Ferry were the strategic heights on the Maryland bank of the Potomac.
This year puts Maryland squarely in the historical spotlight as milestone anniversaries of two of the three wars fought on U.S. soil are being commemorated. It's been 200 years since the beginning of the War of 1812, a conflict that brought plenty of battles to Maryland, including Harford County. It has been 151 years since the Civil War began, and its battles are marking 150th anniversaries regularly as the days and months pass leading to April 2014, the 150th anniversary of the war's end.
The Civil War stands out this weekend, as it does on the last weekend of each May, as it is the bloody conflict that gave rise to the observance of Memorial Day. Like Thanksgiving, the observance of a day to honor the dead of the Civil War came into being in many places in the years following the war. The southern states are often credited with the first of these observances, but the idea caught on, presumably, because there were so many dead on both sides who the war's survivors wanted to remember.
As the years wore on, there were more wars, and more war dead to remember, so the notion of a national holiday to honor those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called in his Gettysburg Address "the last full measure of devotion."
This year, we again mark Memorial Day and, unfortunately, there are more people this year than last to be honored for having given that last measure of devotion to their country, as our nation remains involved in a smoldering conflict.
Just as Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who fought and died in all our nation's conflicts, it also has been expanded, to some degree, to honor those who serve and survive, though, technically speaking, this is the modern purpose of Veterans Day.
All the same, the ideal situation would be to observe a Memorial Day when the memories of those killed in action were noted only in history books and keepsake family letters. With each new war, however, this ideal moves farther into the future. Unfortunately, we have many among us whose families have been touched by the harsh hand of war who share the pain of those who began the Memorial Day tradition nearly 150 years ago.
For these families, and the service members they knew as fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, as much as for the dead, we hold public memorials this weekend. Show your support for them and attend a ceremony in your community before partaking of the holiday's traditions involving celebrations of the beginning of summer.
It is, after all, the sacrifices of those who gave their all that have protected the freedoms, and joys, of living in this nation.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun