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Origins of Memorial Day honored

When discussions about the U.S. involvement in the Korean War are had, it’s not uncommon to add the term “The Forgotten War.” Pressed between World War and Vietnam, and technically not actually won by other side, many people do consider the battle to be “forgotten.”

But there are so many other U.S. wars that we seldom hear about — the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, the foray into the Dominican Republic and several others. Most individuals have heard about our Civil War. But details are often sketchy.

In Southern Nevada, there are several organizations that work tirelessly to keep the memory alive. Those related to Confederate soldiers have their own organization, the Sons of the Confederacy. And those who are related to individuals who fought for the North can join the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, William B. Keith Camp No. 12.

Al Peterson is one of the founders of the Keith Camp.

“My great-grandfather served in the 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery,” he explained.

One of Peterson’s missions is to locate others locally who are descended from members of the Union army and to spread the word about the history of the conflict. “We look around to see who has relatives who served in the Civil War, and we try to get them to join with us and carry out the responsibilities.”

Anyone interested in getting involved — even if they are not related to Civil War family — can join as associate members, he said.

Peterson’s involvement came about in a circuitous way. He said when he moved to Nevada from Rhode Island, he met Len Becker, a resident who also is related to Civil War soldiers. Becker’s wife was a member of the Daughters of Union Veterans.

“I found out through a newspaper article that they were taking care of a particular (Civil War) gravesite at Woodlawn Cemetery in Las Vegas. I asked Len about starting a Union camp and he said he thought it was a great idea.”

That was in 2002. It turned out the gravesite was that of Union veteran William B. Keith. And buried with him (“not beside him,” Anderson stressed) was a Confederate soldier named Joseph Graham. After the Civil War ended with a victory for the North, both men moved to Southern Nevada to what would eventually become Las Vegas.

“We don’t know why, but they met and they became good friends. Joseph Graham died in 1917 and William Keith had a monument built at Woodlawn Cemetery, right at the gravesite.”

Before Keith passed away in 1920, he mandated that when the time came he be buried in the same grave as his friend, not beside him.

Peterson said his group meets once a month to discuss Civil War topics. At one time they regularly participated in various patriotic events such as parades. “But it’s getting to a point now where a lot of our members are a little older and they just don’t get out as often.”

There is one topic, in particular, that still involves action on the part of members, and that concerns the observance of Memorial Day. When Memorial Day was called Decoration Day after the Civil War, it was observed on May 30. But in 1968 Congress mandated that it be moved to the last Monday in May, in order for federal employees to take advantage of a three-day weekend, Peterson said.

“That’s something we definitely oppose.”

Peterson and the Sons of the Union want to revert Memorial Day to May 30.

“There have been over one million, three hundred thousand (combat-related) deaths from the Revolutionary War until today. And that is something we should always pay homage to. They gave their lives for us.”

He and other members lobby Congress through letters and phone calls. Some responses are negative, “but sometimes we don’t get responses,” he said. “But we keep pushing. We have found that some Congressional people have no idea what Memorial Day is, or when it (initially) was.”

He said when the general public is asked about the meaning of the day, “They kinda shake their heads ‘I don’t know.’” And when asked where Memorial Day is on the calendar, “You get answers from January to December. Our history is fading.”

As Decoration Day the holiday was intended to encourage individuals to decorate military graves with flowers. They still do, but he said that tradition is not as strong as it once was. He also takes umbrage with the word “celebrate.”

“We do not ‘celebrate’ Memorial Day. We do not celebrate someone who died.” Memorial Day is held to honor whose who died, he stressed.

Anyone who wants to join his group as a member or as an associate member can contact Peterson at aepsuvcw@cox.net.

Chuck N. Baker is a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War and the host of “That’s America to Me” every Sunday at 7 a.m. on 97.1-FM.

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