by Ken Sehested
As a child I wasn’t aware that Memorial Day observances were intended for those felled on the battlefield. I though of it as a day of familial remembrance, honoring relatives gone before us—veterans and non-veterans alike—something akin to a low-church All Saints Day, but with flowers. Lots of flowers.
For decades, to this day, one of my uncles in southern Oklahoma assumes the duty of trimming grass, pulling weeds and placing wreaths on the Rowell, Sehested and Young burial plots in the small town of Marlow, where I was born and where my own name is carved—with only a birth day for now—in a granite slab that stretches across my immediate family’s plot, where both my father’s body and my sister’s ashes are buried.
Decorating the graves of fallen soldiers goes back at least to the fifth century BCE, when the Athenian leader Pericles offered tribute over the graves of Pelopponnesian War casualties. (Among the most tragic and enduring statements of political reality—“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—comes from the Greek historian Thuycydides’ The History of the Pelopponnesian War.)
U.S. Civil War origins of the holiday
In the U.S., however, the tradition originally referred to as “Decoration Day” sprang up in response to the Civil War.
Where the first such commemoration was held is murky. Boalsburg, Penn., Vicksburg, Miss., Waterloo, N.Y., and Carbondale, Ill., make the claim (along with some 20 other cities). It wasn’t until 1966 that a Congressional resolution formally recognized the village of Waterloo as “the first observance of Memorial Day [on 5 May 1866] as a national holiday.”
Most such observances were in April or May, when plenty of flowers were available. Not surprisingly, women primarily were the ones who took the initiative. Even the first national leader to issue a proclamation marking the day—for 30 May 1868—General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, was said to have been inspired by his wife’s account of viewing women in Petersburg, Va., decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers. Two years earlier the New York Tribune printed a story of Columbus, Miss., women laying flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.
Decoration Day ceremonies were often occasions for a renewal of bitter regional rivalries. In Arlington Cemetery, Confederate and Union gravesites were segregated from each other, and in some years soldiers prevented people from decorating the graves of Confederates. In New York, the first state to declare 30 May a holiday, Confederate veterans were not allowed to parade with their flag or uniforms. In the South during Reconstruction, Decoration Day provided a rallying point for continued resistance to the Civil War’s conclusion and the occupying Union troops. In other Northern cities the occasion featured diatribes against freed slaves and abolitionists. Rarely if ever was the day devoted to celebrating the emancipation of slaves.
(Contrary to popular opinion, most Unionists were not abolitionists. In fact, the most deadly race riot in U.S. history was in July 1863 in New York City, after President Lincoln signed legislation ordering a military draft. For five days poorer white residents —mostly Irish, then New England’s “white trash”—looted and burned, targeting mostly African Americans, including an orphanage. In the end there were at least 120 fatalities and over 2,000 wounded. “Freeing the slaves” was not a widespread motive for the war. President Abraham Lincoln himself wrote: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” In the lines of a popular rhyme in Northern cities when the war broke out, “To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor. And we ain’t for the ni**er, but we are for the war.” For background, see R. Blakeslee Gilpin, “A War Not for Abolition, New York Times.)
Other interesting facts about the holiday
•Shortly after the war’s end, some 10,000 freed slaves in Charleston, S.C., dedicated a cemetery holding the remains of Union prisoners of war.
•Nine former Confederate states still have an official “Confederate Memorial Day.”
•A 1905 story in The New York Times reported that a two-year-old mystery had finally been resolved, involving the repeated decoration of a tall granite shaft in a Westchester, N.Y., cemetery commemorating the deaths of Confederate soldiers. The Daughters of the Confederacy claimed the wreaths had not been their doing. As it turns out, two Unionist women’s organization had been secretly placing the memorial flowers.
“Although the services yesterday were nominally intended to honor the Confederate dead,” wrote the Times journalist, “the graves of Union soldiers had the highest heap of flowers on them, and they were put there by the Southern women.”
•The current Memorial Day holiday observance, placing the date on the last Monday of May, was not established by Congress until January 1971.
It’s hard to comprehend the devastation of the U.S. Civil War. The official death toll of 620,000 soldiers (civilian casualties were not tallied)—almost equal the death toll of all subsequent U.S. wars—represented two percent of the population. Two percent of our nation’s current population comes to more than 6,000,000.
Being for peace is not enough
A reported conversation following World War I between Woodrow Wilson of the United States, David Lloyd-George of Great Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France speak well to the situation under consideration.
Among them it was asked, "Do we want peace?" Their agreed answer was, "Yes." Then it was asked, more probingly, "Are we willing to abandon colonialism?" And the British answered, "No, of course not." It was further asked, "Are we willing to forego any claims for reparation against the Germans?" This time it was the French and the Americans who said, "No."
Then, within that influential threesome, the perceptive insight was voiced, "What we really want is not peace, but only quiet while we enjoy the spoils of our victory in war."
To say it more concisely: We all want peace. But we also want what we cannot get without war. Which is why it’s not enough to be for peace.
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