May 26th this year is when Americans will gather in many places to honor the service men and women who have fallen in battle.
Memorial Day got it’s start after the Civil War; a war that saw brother against brother with staggering losses on both sides. America has memorial battlefields, cemeteries, and monuments recounting those who paid the ultimate price and their deeds literally all across the country.
Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson one day in May, 1966. Being from Southern Illinois, I take exception to that call. Memorial Day was officially proclaimed 5 May 1868 by General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order Number Eleven and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Similar ceremonies were said to have occurred throughout Southern Illinois as well.
It is not important who was the very first or what town did it in a particular manner, what is important is that Memorial Day was established as a coming together to honor the fallen who gave their all.
One Hundred Forty years later I find myself in a unique position. I am stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada as a US Navy exchange officer. I’m a third generation Sailor whose ancestry may have ties to not only to the birth of Memorial Day but to Deadman’s Island too. By happenstance I will be assisting the senior US Navy officer here in the Maritimes in arranging a tribute to what until very recently had been America’s forgotten fallen. 195 Soldiers, Sailors and Marines served, fought, and died almost 200 years ago in yet another war that has faded in memory; the War of 1812. But they lie here in an unmarked burial site.
The War of 1812 has many facets depending upon your point of view. America was a very young country and viewed this war as a second war of independence. Canada was a British colony and viewed the entire war as an act of aggression and invasion by their upstart neighbor to the south. While American history will tell the tales of fierce fighting in New Orleans, sea battles raging upon the Atlantic and Caribbean, most of Canadian history focuses upon the St. Lawrence seaway, the Great Lakes battles and the Upper and Lower Canadian land battles.
It truly is a matter of perspective. I have often heard that “history is written by the victor”, so what happens when it’s a draw?
One of the most famous Canadian battles occurred at a place called “Lundy’s Lane” up near Niagra Falls. American history does not gloss it over but does not regale one with the entire story either. It involves allied Indians fighting alongside British forces and in fact a certain amount of deceit enabling a conniving British officer to accept the surrender of several hundred American soldiers. Among those units were the soldiers of the 16th Infantry from Ohio. Some were taken as prisoners of war (POWs). Most POWs were transported to Halifax to remain in the prison on Melville Island until the war’s end. Some died there. Remember the 16th Inf, this will figure in later.
Fast forward to the turn of the Twenty First century. Waterfront property is always at a premium. Halifax is a growing metropolitan area and Deadman’s Island appears attractive for development. The locals who grew up in the Armdale region have heard the stories surrounding this island but few knew the details. Local legends and scary kid’s tales, no one thought anything of it. But CDR Brad Renner on exchange to the Canadian Navy and a powerboat sport hobbyist used to anchor within a hundred yards of Deadman’s Island, he had heard the tales and began to ask questions as did other concerned citizens.
In his words:
“In 2005 the City of Halifax dedicated this Island as a park, in large part because there are nearly 200 US Navy, Army and Marine Service Members buried on the Island in unmarked graves. They were prisoners of war from the War of 1812 and died while in captivity. In addition to these men there are approximately 100 Chesapeake Blacks - men, women and children - who were brought here after the British raided Washington D.C. in 1814. Promised their freedom by the British if they left their homes in the Chesapeake Bay area these people, many entire families, boarded the British ships and returned to Halifax only to be quarantined at Melville prison and die in captivity as did our POWS - an ironic twist of fate for what was supposed to be their trip to freedom.
In any event, since the city officially dedicated this site in a 2005 ceremony and a plaque with all the names of the POWs who died while imprisoned here was placed on the Island, those of us stationed here in Nova Scotia have invited the residents of the city of Halifax, Canadian and American, as well as all visitors to join us on Deadman's Island on Memorial Day to remember those who have gone before us and sacrificed, with their lives, so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.
The men buried on this Island represent what I call a sad blot on our great military history - they fought, were captured, died and were buried in unmarked graves on an Island on a foreign shore...and for nearly 190 years they were forgotten...until the good people of Halifax reminded us they were here. So now, each year, those of us stationed here prepare the Island for Memorial Day and celebrate and honor our fallen comrades, from the most recent to those who fell decades ago.
For the past 2 years we have had the privilege of having US Navy Ships visiting in-port Halifax just prior to Memorial Day. Last year we asked for support from USS WASP and with their help for about 4-5 hours we were able to repair much of the damage caused to the Island by the harsh winter storms here in Halifax. This year we will have USS BARRY, USS DONALD COOK (both Destroyers) plus 1 other visiting ship and we are hoping that we can muster a good turnout to help preserve this serene, quiet, beautiful Island for the men buried there and for future generations of people who will visit the Island to honor and remember them.
On 14 May 08 I met with city officials to survey the Island and set a work agenda for the things we would like to accomplish this year. The below list is what we have put together as our wish list. We invite any and all who would like to join us on the morning of Wednesday, 21 May 2008, from 0800 until 1200 to form a working party to assist the city of Halifax in cleaning up and preserving Deadman's Island. The city will provide transportation to/from the pier/Island and provide lunch (on the Island if Weather permits) for all those who join us for this event.
Scope of Work as discussed at site meeting:
- revitalization of the entrance way plant material
- removal of weed material throughout walkway
- repair to minor washouts in walkway and revitalization of lower walkway with installation of proper w/w materials
- some minor fence repair
- general park and beach area clean-up
- graffiti removal
- cleaning of memorial stone and interpretive plaques
- addition of soil and seed to eroded areas on Island site
- some ground level arboricultural maintenance as directed by Brian Phelan
- other minor maintenance as required
You can anticipate media interest. The Island is a site of great interest and each year our Memorial Day ceremony grows a little larger. The Canadian Base in Halifax is aware of this event and supports our Service with a Bagpiper, Bugler and material support. Their PAO advertises this event as does the PAO at the US Consulate. The city advertises it as one of their "Community in Bloom" projects which is part of a larger national program and one for which last years efforts were noted during an awards ceremony held to recognize the Halifax parks. For last years clean up event several local papers were on the Island and took pictures and interviewed crew. All in all it has been a very positive COMREL event for the USN - we look forward to working with you and helping to make your visit to Halifax a most enjoyable one.”
I’ve become “the old stuff” repository for much of my family history. I’ve tried to search out some of the genealogy using fresh data combined with what my Mom had collected as well as notes from my Grandmother McGuire and tales from my Grandfather McGuire (he had plenty). The collective memory of six generations ran something like this:
We came from County Fermanaugh, Ireland in the early 1800’s.
The first to come over was Patrick McGuire who landed in North Carolina then moved to Ohio and finally settled in Southern Illinois.
He had some kids, they had kids, those kids….you get the idea.
My research led me along those lines as well, in fact I found a Warrant issued in 1818 to a Patrick McGuire, Sgt, 16th Infantry of Ohio for 160 acres of land in Peoria County, Illinois. Does this match up with our progenitor? I have no way of proving that and it really doesn’t matter, it will be on my mind in the coming days to be sure. 196 years after the battles of my long, long past Grandfather’s unit and friends, they will rest in my mind most assuredly.
What matters most is honoring those Forgotten Few on Deadman’s Island on this Memorial Day.
The clean up will happen rain or shine as will the ceremony on the following Monday.
Ranks will again be drawn. Lines tightened as the colors are raised on foreign soil alongside a POW/MIA flag. Both shall fly to the peak and then be reverently lowered to half mast.
The pipes will wail their mournful tune and bugle shall play Taps as salutes are rendered for the fallen.
Those that die in service to the United States should not be forgotten.
And like the families of these Fighting Americans now resting in honor in Canada, maybe one day I’ll find the rest of Patrick’s story.
Monday, May 26, 2008
A little something for Memorial Day from a USN PEP (Personnel Exchange Program) officer to Canada, Brad McGuire, who was kind enough to send me something he put together for a local paper. I like the little hidden things for Memorial & Veterans Day, so with Brad's permission - below in whole.