Memorial Day – The Story of Oscar Spaulding

I wish we didn’t have to have Memorial Day, but I’m thankful that we do. 

I’m someone saddened these days because I believe we’ve lost the focus and the original intent of Memorial Day. It just seems that Memorial Day weekend is primarily known today for kicking off the beginning of summer. It’s when the community pool opens in our neighborhoods. It’s a time for backyard barbeques or perhaps that first trip to the beach. 

Now, please don’t think I’m a “Dale Downer” or anything.  Because I love family outdoor fun like the rest of us.  I’m just saying that if we’re not careful, it can rob us of the true purpose of Memorial Day. 

The History of Memorial Day

Looking back at history, Memorial Day was first known as Decoration Day. It originated in the years following the Civil War. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Why? Because on May 5, 1866, just one year after the Civil War ended, the people of Waterloo held a community-wide event where businesses closed and local residents decorated the graves of soldiers killed in Civil War with flags and flowers. Two years later in 1868, General John Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed nationwide annually. 

Although the term “Memorial Day” was used beginning in the 1880s, the holiday was officially known as “Decoration Day” for more than a century, Then finally in 1971, Memorial Day became an official holiday in the United States. 

Most of you that know me, know that I served in the United States Navy for twenty-two years. So, Memorial Day has always been important to me personally. 

I love history and I’ve been studying my family history for thirty plus years now. Memorial Day is personal for me because I have ancestors who paid that ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield for our country. Allow me to share the story of just one of them. He was my third great-uncle and his name was Private Oscar Spaulding. You can read the entire compelling story of Oscar Spaulding in my book Fortitude.

161 Years Ago Today

On May 25, 1861, just three weeks after the Civil War broke out, my Uncle Oscar Spaulding, at age eighteen (161 years ago today), quit his job as a weaver at the textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts and joined the Union Army answering the call to service from President Lincoln. He was assigned to Company A of the Second Massachusetts Infantry. From May to July that year, the men of the Second Massachusetts drilled as a regiment and on July 8, 1861 they boarded a train heading south to get in the fight. 

The Battle of Cedar Mountain

Private Oscar Spaulding’s unit participated in a few skirmishes with Confederate forces in the months that followed, but those were nothing like he experienced at the Battle of Cedar Mountain near Culpeper, Virginia on August 9, 1862. Cedar Mountain was a fierce battle in which 35% of the men of the Second Massachusetts were either killed or wounded. This is how the battle was described by one of my uncle’s fellow soldiers:

“The roar of musketry was perfectly deafening. The noise of the bullets through the air was like a gale of wind. It seemed as if only a miracle could save anyone.”

My Uncle Oscar was wounded in that battle. He was struck twice in the right leg and once in the arm, breaking the bone. After the fight was over, Oscar was taken from the battlefield to the nearby field hospital. Once stabilized, he was moved by horse-driven ambulance to the regimental hospital in Culpepper, Virginia. 

Casualties from the battle were too numerous for the regimental hospital to adequately care for, so my Uncle Oscar, and many of his brothers, were transported via hospital train to Washington, D.C. My uncle was admitted to the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia on August 14, 1862 where he continued the battle, but now for his life. Just three days after he arrived at that hospital, my Uncle Oscar died on August 17, 1862. He was just nineteen. He gave his last full measure of devotion to our country.

I remember my Uncle Oscar Spaulding every Memorial Day. 

Unfortunately, after so many years of wind, rain and the harsh winters of Massachusetts, Oscar’s grave marker became broken, partially buried and unreadable. With the help of fellow family historian Marti Spalding, Michael Lally of the Lowell cemetery and the Veteran’s Administration, I was able to secure a new headstone for Oscar (the featured photo of this post). I’m thankful that the ultimate sacrifice made by my third great-uncle Private Oscar Spaulding during the Civil War will be forever remembered.

In the military, the men and women you deploy with are family. They are your brothers and sisters and you love them. There’s a scripture in the gospel of John that speaks to me on who we remember on Memorial Day. These are the words of Jesus Christ.

“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

–John 15:13 (CSB)

Memorial Day at Arlington

My wife Nancy and I have visited Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day many times. Yes, it’s crowded with people paying their respects as it should be, but we avoid the large tourist crowds around places like the President John F. Kennedy memorial and go straight to Section 60. Why? Well, there are no former presidents or other famous people are buried in Section 60 at Arlington. Section 60 is the final resting place for the young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country in American’s most recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. 

A few years ago on Memorial Day, Nancy and I noticed a women in Section 60 sitting peacefully on the ground by herself in front of a grave marker. We walked over to her and asked if she minded if we sit with her. She said yes. We sat quietly with her for a little while and then I asked, “Tell me about your son.” 

Through her tears of pride, she told us about her son. What kind of boy he was growing up. His call to duty for our country. She told us about the unit he served with in the U.S. Army. Then she told us about that day he was killed in action. He was a good kid. He was America’s finest.

I thanked her for her sacrifice of giving up her son for our country. We continued to talk – for how long I’m not really sure. Time just sort of stood still when we were with her. Then I asked her if I could pray for her. She said, oh yes, would you? After praying for her, we hugged and said our goodbyes. I’m sure that Mom will again be sitting at the grave of her son this and every Memorial Day. 

On this Memorial Day, please take time to think about the countless other mothers, wives, fathers, husbands and brothers and sisters who have lost a loved one in combat like this Mom we met. Take a visit to your closest National Cemetery with your children and teach them about what Memorial Day is really all about. 

May God comfort and bless those who have lost a loved one in the service of our great country on this and every Memorial Day!

Arlington National Cemetery (photo by Dale Spaulding)

Published by Dale Spaulding

Family historian and author of Fortitude.

5 thoughts on “Memorial Day – The Story of Oscar Spaulding

  1. Dale
    Oh how proud you must be that your fruitation of your research has come to pass.Will certainly pass the news around.
    Have thought of you often lately.


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