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Maryland landscapes honor soldiers’ sacrifices | COMMENTARY

On Memorial Day weekend last year, Edward Schmedes of Bel Air visited the grave of his father, First Seargent Peter A. Schmedes, at Baltimore National Cemetery, with his great-granddaughter Grace. His father served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War.
On Memorial Day weekend last year, Edward Schmedes of Bel Air visited the grave of his father, First Seargent Peter A. Schmedes, at Baltimore National Cemetery, with his great-granddaughter Grace. His father served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. (Amy Davis)

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died,” said General George S. Patton. “Rather we should thank God such men lived.”

Nowhere is that sentiment more pertinent than in Maryland. Some of the state’s most iconic landscapes reflect the sacrifices made by American soldiers for the good of the country. Maryland is also home to multiple national cemeteries, among them: Annapolis, Antietam, Baltimore and Loudon Park.

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The burial ground in Annapolis was one of 14 established by Lincoln in 1862. During the Civil War, Annapolis was the site of a Union training and recruiting center. Despite the government’s best efforts to keep the camps sanitary, a large number of men died there from smallpox and typhoid. The Annapolis National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

Antietam, near Sharpsburg in Washington County, is still remembered as the site of the single bloodiest day in the nation’s history. Following the Battle of Antietam, Maryland and its immediate environs could be viewed as the occasional epicenter of the conflict — especially when combat casualties were quickly transferred to towns like Frederick, which became what one historian called “one vast hospital.”

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A Union soldier named Stephen Bogardus wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle: “The bandaged head, the empty sleeve, and the stump of a leg, told a tale louder than words could speak. Those who spoke flippantly of patriotism as a mere word should have seen some of those that I have met.”

The site occupied by Baltimore National Cemetery was originally an estate called Cloud Capped, an elevated location adjacent to Frederick Road. The property was originally owned by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. During the War of 1812, residents observed the attacking British fleet sailing toward Fort McHenry and famously sent a messenger to warn the city.

Nearby, an iron fence and formal cast-iron gates surround rows of headstones at the once-diminutive 5-acre Loudon Park National Cemetery. Most of its first interments came from nearby Baltimore hospitals and prisons like Fort McHenry. The cemetery has since been expanded by the federal government, now comprising over 72 acres.

Maryland is also home to the Point Lookout Confederate Cemetery, located in the town of Ridge about 80 miles south of Washington. During the Civil War, the Union Army established a hospital on the site after General George McClellan was unable to capture Richmond. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, Point Lookout was transformed into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers.

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Those who died there were eventually buried in a common grave. In 1910, Maryland asked the federal government to assume care of the burial site and relinquished all rights and title to the property.

A century after the original Decoration Day, which on May 30, 1868, commemorated the Confederate and Union soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the occasion evolved into Memorial Day to honor veterans of all conflicts in which Americans lost their lives. Congress later established the day as the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend for federal employees. For many Americans that three-day period — often spent visiting federal cemeteries, staging parades, and throwing barbecues — marks the beginning of summer.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs some 25 cities and towns claim to have originated Memorial Day. Doylestown, Pennsylvania; Grafton, West Virginia; and Rochester, Wisconsin, have held parades since 1868, but the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. The Greeks and Romans held annual days of remembrance for loved ones (including soldiers) each year, festooning their graves with flowers and holding public festivals and feasts in their honor. One of the first known public tributes to war dead was in 431 B.C., when the Athenian general and statesman Pericles delivered a funeral oration praising the sacrifice and valor of those killed in the Peloponnesian War — a speech that some have compared in tone to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

On this Memorial Day, though, all might agree how nice it is to note that more than 80 Marylanders have been awarded the Medal of Honor — the country’s highest and most prestigious military decoration for valor on the battlefield.

Kenneth Lasson (klasson@ubalt.edu) is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where he specializes in civil liberties and international human rights.

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