Today marks 154 years of celebrating those who have served and sacrificed for our freedom. As the storyteller of our life out here in the middle, I have found a passion for learning and sharing about the lives in which came before us and with it being Memorial Day, I found it to be the most appropriate time to share with you the history of Memorial Day as well as the life of John Leslie Wehr who was born and raised here at the homestead and served as Army Sargent and squad leader during the Vietnam War.
The History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in service of the United States of America. While there is uncertainty as to where this day began, as over 2 dozen towns and cities lay claim to it, President Lyndon Johnson declared in May of 1966 Waterloo N.Y. the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Memorial Day came about after the Civil War in 1865 in which it was intended to honor those who passed away. On May 5, 1968, General John Logan, who was the national commander of the Grand Army of the republic, proclaimed it in his General Order No. 11. In the order, it states, “The 30th 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.” Since the day was not the anniversary of any battle, the General, called it the date of Decoration Day.
On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried at Arlington Cemetery. That same day, the 20th President of the United States, James Garfield, who served in the Union Army and made rank of general, made a historic speech while a member of congress.
With having an appreciation of bringing forth the past to the present day in hopes of returning us to the roots from which we can all trace back to the same tree, I share with you the speech of General James Garfield:
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion.
If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.
With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice.
We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.
For the noblest man that lives, there remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot.
I know of nothing more appropriate on this occasion than to inquire what brought these men here; what high motive led them to condense life into an hour, and to crown that hour by joyfully welcoming death? Let us consider.
Eight years ago, this was the most unwarlike nation of the earth. For nearly fifty years no spot in any of these states had been the scene of battle. Thirty millions of people had an army of less than ten thousand men. The faith of our people in the stability and permanence of their institutions was like their faith in the eternal course of nature. Peace, liberty, and personal security were blessings as common and universal as sunshine and showers and fruitful seasons; and all sprang from a single source, the old American principle that all owe due submission and obedience to the lawfully expressed will of the majority.
This is not one of the doctrines of our political system—it is the system itself. It is our political firmament, in which all other truths are set, as stars in Heaven. It is the encasing air, the breath of the Nation’s life. Against this principle the whole weight of the rebellion was thrown. Its overthrow would have brought such ruin as might follow in the physical universe, if the power of gravitation were destroyed and
“Nature’s concord broke,
Among the constellations war were sprung,
Two planets, rushing from aspect malign
Of fiercest opposition, in mid-sky
Should combat, and their jarring spheres confound.” (From Milton’s Paradise Lost)
The Nation was summoned to arms by every high motive which can inspire men. Two centuries of freedom had made its people unfit for despotism. They must save their government or miserably perish.
As a flash of lightning in a midnight tempest reveals the abysmal horrors of the sea, so did the flash of the first gun disclose the awful abyss into which rebellion was ready to plunge us. In a moment the fire was lighted in twenty million hearts. In a moment we were the most warlike Nation on the earth. In a moment we were not merely a people with an army—we were a people in arms. The Nation was in column—not all at the front, but all in the array.
I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of the great deeds of the Anglo-Saxon race, from Agincourt to Bunker Hill. It was such an influence that led a young Greek, two thousand years ago, when musing on the battle of Marathon, to exclaim, “the trophies of Miltiades will not let me sleep!”
Could these men be silent in 1861; these, whose ancestors had felt the inspiration of battle on every field where civilization had fought in the last thousand years? Read their answer in this green turf. Each for himself gathered up the cherished purposes of life—its aims and ambitions, its dearest affections—and flung all, with life itself, into the scale of battle.
And now consider this silent assembly of the dead.
What does it represent? Nay, rather, what does it not represent?
It is an epitome of the war.
Here are sheaves reaped in the harvest of death, from every battlefield of Virginia. If each grave had a voice to tell us what its silent tenant last saw and heard on earth, we might stand, with uncovered heads, and hear the whole story of the war. We should hear that one perished when the first great drops of the crimson shower began to fall, when the darkness of that first disaster at Manassas fell like an eclipse on the Nation; that another died of disease while wearily waiting for winter to end; that this one fell on the field, in sight of the spires of Richmond, little dreaming that the flag must be carried through three more years of blood before it should be planted in that citadel of treason; and that one fell when the tide of war had swept us back till the roar of rebel guns shook the dome of yonder Capitol, and re-echoed in the chambers of the Executive Mansion.
We should hear mingled voices from the Rappahannock, the Rapidan, the Chickahominy, and the James; solemn voices from the Wilderness, and triumphant shouts from the Shenandoah, from Petersburg, and the Five Forks, mingled with the wild acclaim of victory and the sweet chorus of returning peace. The voices of these dead will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.
What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!” (Source: James Garfield’s Memorial Day Speech | The Radio Patriot)
Do you find yourself a bit more grounded after reading General Garfield’s speech? In short, I find it to be sobering as it tightens the focus of the lens into the past, a place we will never be able to visit, and can only imagine the angst across America. I find it drawing me from our Memorial Day to-do-list and filling moments with both sadness and gratitude.
Remembering Johnny Wehr
Here at the homestead on July 20, 1945, was born a little boy who was named John Leslie Wehr of whom many called “Johnny.” Of all the history I have read and the stories I have heard, John Leslie Wehr is a name that is known to the entire community and is a name that has not been forgotten since his passing in the Vietnam War. At our local historical society meetings John’s name has come up multiple times and each time his name is mentioned, a somber feeling arrives but is met with memories of playing here in the front yard at the homestead with him and a collective memory of what a kind person he was. Having never met him myself, the stories from locals leave a bit of heartache within me for the community as well as the family as John is still missed very much today.
John entered the Army on July 24, 1968, and passed away in combat on February 9, 1969, in Tay Ninh, South Vietnam. His name can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and is pictured below. In addition, there are articles below where you can read more about John and his accomplishments in addition to being awarded a purple heart, national defense, Vietnam service, and Vietnam campaign medals. John was known as being a nice young man and the most sensitive of the three brothers. He would have been 77 years old this year on July 20th.
Moving forward in Rememberance
As you and I both know, there are thousands of stories like John Leslie Wehr’s. How can you keep their memory alive? I hope this Memorial Day, you will take the opportunity to bring forth the memories of those you know and inquire about the friends and family who served with those you are spending today with. And as a friendly reminder, as a nation, we can unite for a moment of silence at 3 p.m.in remembrance for all who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
*A very special thank you to the Wehr family members for sharing their stories, newspaper clippings, and photographs with our family. We’re so grateful!