A red rectangle on a white background surrounding a blue star. The banner is displayed in the homes of the families who have members serving in the military. During the first and second world wars, it was a banner of honor. No so much during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. The banner is proudly displayed again in the windows of families who have members serving in the military. Because less than 1% of our nation’s population serve in the military it is rare to see such banners. Even more rare is the the banner with the gold star instead of blue. It is a banner no family wants. A banner with a gold star instead of blue means that family lost a loved one while serving the country in combat.
What is the story of the gold star? Where did it come from? It seems like the gold star has been a centuries old tradition. However, the tradition only began after the beginning of the Great War of 1914.
The story of the Gold Star begins in Ohio in 1917. CPT Robert Queisser patented a service flag with a red border and blue star to honor his sons serving on the front lines during WWI. Cleveland adopted the flag as a symbol for all families who had sons serving during the Great War. Before long, families who lost sons during the war replaced the blue stars with gold stars. President Wilson is credited with establishing a black armband with a gold star for the mothers who lost sons instead of wearing the tradition black dress during mourning. It does not take much imagination to understand how the gold star from the armband found its way on the service flag replacing the blue stars. Before long, being a gold star family was an unwanted honor.
Early historical records share rituals armies conducted after battles to celebrate victories and honor their dead. There is no time in battle to reflect upon or mourn those who die. The Soldier must continue to move to achieve the objective of the battle. Even though nations and armies develop formal ceremonies to honor those who die in war, small units also create their own rituals.
Often those rituals grow out of little habits warrior develop to prepare for battle. They have code words that have great meaning, certain ways of preparing equipment, and even mascots and good luck charms. Men and women who enter battle only have each other to rely on knowing that even if they do everything right it may not be enough to keep away the grim reaper.
Memorial Day grew out of a post American Civil War tradition of decorating the graves of Soldiers who died during the War between the States. Then it was called Decoration Day. Several states and cities lay claim to the title of being the first to start the practice in May. By the time the Great War started, it had become a spring-time tradition across the nation
The Great War changed America in many ways. We learned we could no longer remain an isolated nation. Many of the modern memorial traditions began as a result of the Great War. In addition to the blue and gold star service flags, congress established the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. If you know the history of Arlington, you know the connection to the Civil War and therefore to Memorial Day.
For those who do not know, the property of Arlington National Cemetery was the homestead of GEN Robert E. Lee. While Lee is remembered for his actions leading the rebel army during the Civil War, his service in the United States Army is often forgotten. President Lincoln seized the property for unpaid taxes and began burying dead Union Soldiers there to insult Lee. The front porch of Lee’s former home is still one of the best views of the Washington Mall.
As I began to prepare this piece on the symbol of the Gold Star I was surprised to learn how new the symbol was. As you can see from the references below, my research was all internet based and we all know how reliable the internet can sometimes be. I decided to do a little research on my own. It is common practice on war memorials in communities across our nation to mark the names of service members who died during the war with a star. My community has war memorials dating as far back as the French and Indian Wars in 1754. I ran down to the old monument that stands at the sight of first town meeting house. I noticed there was not a single star beside any names, not even beside Edward Cross who was the commander of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, Second Army Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg where he was injured on July 2rd 1863 and died the following day. No star beside his name yet several monuments around town dedicated to him!
When I went to the war monument for WWI, I found the first instances of stars beside names on the honor roll. Clearly this was the time period that the nation began to distinguish those who died in armed conflict while on military service.
To circle back to the beginning of this post, it certanly seems that the story of the Gold Star Banner dates to World War I. CPT Queisser’s flag created to acknowledge the service of his son’s has become a tradition to honor families that have members serving in the military. The Gold Star is an important part of that tradition. As you attend a Memorial Day service this weekend, pay attention for those who wear a Gold Star. Remember to thank them for their sacrifice as you would any living veteran. You see, veterans may be the one who write the blank check up to and including their own life when they join the military but it is the families that have to cash that check. Remember every name on your town’s war monument with a star was the son or daughter of someone. Many had spouses and children. On this Memorial Day please remember not only those who gave all but also those they left behind.
American Legion. Blue Star Banner. https://www.legion.org/troops/bluestar 5/22/20
Burdeau, Lisa M. Mourning And The Making Of A Nation:, The Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimages, 1930-1933 April 2002 https://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/pdfs/BUDREAU.PDF 5/22/20
Cross’ monument in Wilder Cemetery, Lancaster, NH.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery. shttps://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Tomb-of-the-Unknown-Soldier