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Mourning in America

American Cemetery Cambridge, England
American Cemetery Cambridge, England

Memorial Day weekend approaches, and the time has come again to remember and mourn our men and women who passed away while in service to our country and therefore, us. Mourning in America began after the Civil War in 1866 in Mississippi and in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery.

Some of our war history is well known, but I find that some of the events leading us into wars have been glossed over for the sake of brevity. But, we're genealogists! We need to know the whole story, right? Let's take a look at some of the wars that happened through the first half of the 20th century.

Obviously, the Revolutionary War, fought between 1775 and 1783, was to gain independence from England. But what made the colonists want independence? Taxation without representation - paying taxes without a voice in what the money was used for! Britain raised their taxes to help cover the debts incurred by its war with France. See The Stamp Act and The Townshend Acts (which established a tax on all imports to the colonies, including tea!) for more in depth research (link below).

Map of US and Mexican territories 1845

Mexican American War (1846 - 1848) centered on the annexation of the 10 year old independent Texas Republic. In Mexico, this is known as the "War of the American Invasion." Basically, a border dispute between the two countries was at the heart of the fight. In addition to Texas, which would be admitted as a Slave State, the US Government also wanted more territories to the west, notably California, but Mexico was not interested in selling. The US also worried that Britain was interested in California. So, we invaded and beat Mexico in time for gold to be found in California.

The US Civil War (1861 - 1865) was the war with the highest number of fatalities estimated to be 620,000 out of the 2,400,000 known to have served losing their lives. The main issue was the right to own slaves. The economies of the rebelling states depended upon slave labor, and they did not believe that the more industrialized states without slavery based economies should be able to tell them what to do - "states rights" vs. Federal rights, an issue back in the headlines today.

Chart of total US war fatalities from

Roughrider Teddy Roosevelt in uniform on horseback
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The Spanish American War (1898) found us backing Cuban revolutionaries against Spain in what future president Teddy Roosevelt called "a splendid little war." The US public became outraged about the use of concentration camps where citizens were imprisoned without trial in one of the first reported uses of such facilities in 1896, to keep them under control of the Spanish military as martial law was declared in Cuba. The use of the camps was discontinued in 1897 after thousands had died. In order to protect American business interests still held in Cuba, the US sent the warship The Maine in January of 1898. It exploded and sank in Havana harbor, under mysterious circumstances and 260 servicemen lost their lives. The war lasted 10 weeks and was the launching point of Roosevelt's political career.

World War I had its beginnings in the Balkan countries (Bosnia, Serbia and Herzegovina) around 1914. Things blew out of control when the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary was assassinated (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) in Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina) by a revolutionary member of The Black Hand. Shortly after that it was Austria-Hungary and Germany against the rest of Europe (including Russia). But how did the US get involved? German U-boats started sinking ships around Britain, including merchant ships, and then the passenger vessel, Lusitania, killing Americans. The US was involved in "The Great War" from 1917 - 1918.

Sinking cruise ship and lifeboats in 1915
The sinking of British passenger ship The Lusitania 1915

World War II had its beginnings before the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. Japan and China had been at war since 1937. Japan needed more natural resources than their land could provide, and began "incursions" into China. When war was declared between those two nations, US opinion ended up being on the side of China. When Japan canceled its shipping treaty with the US in 1940, the US began to restrict shipping of military goods to Japan, and soon after, began a full blockade by the US Pacific Fleet against goods going to Japan. This was not a popular move in Japan as you can imagine.

Mussolini and Hitler WWII National Geographic Photo

The military led government of Japan joined with the similar governments of Germany (Hitler) and Italy (Mussolini) with the Tripartite Act, agreements with Vichy France soon followed, and the US's interests in Indochina were threatened. While the US continued trying to negotiate a peace between the warring factors, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and war was declared.

As this war was fought by the US on two fronts, it was the cause of the second largest loss of life by American service men and women after the Civil War. But the world was saved from "fascism." This term has been bandied about a lot lately and is related to the term "antifa" or anti-fascism. So, I wondered, what is the actual definition of fascism? Here is the entry from the Encyclopeida Brittanica website

"Fascism, political ideology and mass movement that dominated many parts of central, southern, and eastern Europe between 1919 and 1945 and that also had adherents in western Europe, the United States, South Africa, Japan, Latin America, and the Middle East. Europe’s first fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, took the name of his party from the Latin word fasces, which referred to a bundle of elm or birch rods (usually containing an ax) used as a symbol of penal authority in ancient Rome. Although fascist parties and movements differed significantly from one another, they had many characteristics in common, including extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: “people’s community”), in which individual interests would be subordinated to the good of the nation."

Japanese Americans were rounded up, their property seized, and they were confined to interment camps. America was incensed about concentration camps in Cuba in 1896, and would be by the Nazi concentration camps found later, but this was okay now in the interest of national security. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) operated 10 camps in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas, holding around 120,000 people for varying periods of time. George Takei, Sulu of Star Trek fame, and his family were interned in such a camp when he was four.

After WWII, Russia was no longer an ally of the US and Britain. While we were busy rebuilding the western half of Europe with the Marshall Plan, Russia was busy installing communist governments in the territories it had defended in the war. This period marked the beginning of "The Cold War" wherein two nuclear powers were threatening mutual annihilation.

The Red Scare of the 1950's began when Sen. Joseph McCarthy got Congress all riled up saying there were 205 "card-carrying members" of the Communist Party working in the State Department. The term "McCarthyism" is defined as: "1. The political practice of publicizing accusations of disloyalty or subversion with insufficient regard to evidence; and 2. The use of methods of investigation and accusation regarded as unfair, in order to suppress opposition" according to the American Heritage Dictionary, or to put it another way, "a witch hunt." People's lives were ruined by the mostly false accusations that they were communist sympathizers.

Black and white screen shot of Bert the Turtle wearing a helmet staring at a lit stick of dynamite

Does anyone else remember "Duck and Cover?" School children practiced for nuclear attacks by ducking under their desks and covering their heads with their hands, or gathered against the walls in central hallways like we do for tornados now into the mid-sixties. Fun times! I found this Civil Defense Administration video starring Bert the Turtle from 1951 for you on YouTube:

Over 400,000 people died in WWII to deliver us from dictatorships and to preserve our idealistic democratic processes. Over 625,000 died in The Revolutionary War and the Civil War in the belief that all men were created equal and endowed with the right to choose who will govern us, and to pursue the "inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as was in the Declaration of Independence.

Arlington National Cemetery under sun dappled trees
Arlington National Cemetery

More than 100,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice in other wars to defend our freedoms and to protect our allied citizens around the world from enemies.

As we honor our war dead on Memorial Day, reflect on the sacrifices of our ancestors, focus on their motivations, and the effects on immediate families. Let's not forget the privileges and rights we enjoy today because of those sacrifices! I can't help becoming impassioned on this topic.

Check your favorite genealogy sites for special sales on military records this week. If you know of a particular battle an ancestor fought in or a unit they were in, I recommend that you Google the name of the battle or unit, as the web is full of information that will help make it seem more real! The National Parks Service has many sites with photos and histories that are fascinating. (owned by has a free trial membership which may give you just enough time to glean some information. There are links below for further reading if you would like to learn more.

We have just passed the second anniversary date of this blog and I appreciate your support! Thanks for taking some time with me again. If you have a story to share please email me, I'd love to learn about your family.

Don't forget, I'll happily take a look at your brick wall for free to see if I can help.

Pray for peace!

Leslie Ryan

“World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of human compassion.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

No compensation is received for any referrals or links herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Further reading:

The Townshend Acts leading to the Revolution

Declaration of Independence Transcription

Concentration camps in Cuba

National Parks Service info about the Spanish American War

WWII and Pearl Harbor

Japanese American Interment Camps

The Cold War with Russia

McCarthyism and the Red Scare


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