Memorial Day 2019 _ Who Are We As A People?

Memorial Day is a time to wonder what makes us Americans.  The memorial to the left brings the question to mind. The figure of the woman at the top of it faces to the south.

Memorial Day is supposed to be a solemn day for us to remember everyone who died serving in the American armed forces. It started after the Civil War to honor the dead in that war. It continued through our many wars after that. It wasn’t officially named Memorial Day until 1967 and the holiday established a year later.

When was the first Memorial Day? Many places claimed it originated in their towns. In 1966, “President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo–which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866–because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.”

A Brief History of Memorial Day suggests the following event may have been the earliest occurrence. “The event in Charleston that may have precipitated Memorial Day offers poignant evidence of a country struggling to rebuild itself after a bloody war: 257 Union soldiers died in prison in Charleston during the Civil War and were buried in unmarked graves, and the town’s black residents organized a May Day ceremony in which they landscaped a burial ground to properly honor the soldiers.”

One article notes: The commander of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a proclamation in 1868 declaring May 30 as a day to place flowers on the graves of Union Civil War dead.”

The original name given to what we now refer to as Memorial Day was Decoration Day. Here’s something of note”  “On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.”

There are Confederate soldiers there? They still are. Until the late 19th Century their graves could not be decorated by their relatives. Then came the Wilmington Insurrection.  It was described as a  “successful insurrection” by “white supremacists.” President McKinley did not act to interfere with it. Between 60 and 300 blacks died; and 2,000 were chased out of the city.

Facing strong criticism from African-Americans McKinley decided to take a train trip across the Deep South hoping to promote racial harmony. During the trip he saw the graves of many Confederate soldiers were falling into disarray. He promised the federal government would help restore them as those buried in those graves represented “a tribute to American valor”

After that attention was paid to the Confederate soldiers buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in early fall 1898. It was decided that a section of the cemetery be set aside for Confederate soldiers. They were all disinterred from their other scattered locations and buried in that section. Many years of fund-raising took place until finally on June 4, 1914, a memorial ceremony was held which was attended by President Woodrow Wilson. The woman shown at the top of the memorial is known as “the South.”  The memorial itself as the Confederate Memorial. Now things which are Confederate are verboten. The Confederacy was established to preserve the odious institution of slavery. Statues remembering Confederate generals, leaders, and soldiers are being taken down.  As a people do we want to have in our major national cemetery soldiers who fought for a government at war with the Union.  And, do we want that magnificent memorial honoring them?

Do we reconcile as a people better by ripping out all honors relating to these rebels? Or do we recognize that these Confederate soldiers were Americans who fought with valor, rebelled, and had they lived would have become Americans again? Remember we welcomed those who fought and survived back into our country with full forgiveness.

America must recognize that the descendants of all these soldiers who fought for the Confederate cause and their families have fought bravely and brilliantly in all America’s subsequent wars. For that, we must be grateful. Why then would we want to almost capriciously act to dishonor them?

All Americans know slavery is wrong. Some still struggle with the idea of black equality.  Better to work on them than to work to redo century old actions. It is appropriate to remember all America killed in war.

For me, I recall my Godfather and uncle Lieutenant James P. Rogers killed in WWII when his B- 17 crashed. I remember Captain James Carroll, USMC, who lived across the hall in Basic School and who was a real Marine killed in Vietnam. I remember Johnny Jacobs – one of the Lundbohm clan – who I had a fist fight with in front of 47 Belfort Street, also killed in Vietnam. May they rest in peace.







  1. Went this morning to the Memorial Day Service at the Mashpee Veterans Garden. Mary and I also attend the Veterans Day activities in November. One thing I truly enjoy about small-town America is the intimacy of these gatherings. The Boys and Girls Scouts marching out of step; the slightly out of tune high school band (all fifteen of them); and the short and sweet speeches and ecumenical convocations. No blowhards.

    I think this intimacy evokes something about what America should and can be. And was envisioned by the Founders. Maybe we’ll get there after all.

    • Hutch:

      Thanks for reminding us what is important. Hope resides in the good will of small communities following traditional customs.

  2. Thanks for your service, Matt. McKinley and Wilson’s (and Lincoln’s) solution – treating Confederate veterans as fellow Americans rather than traitorous rebels – had the benefit of fostering reunification. The disadvantage was turning a blind eye to Jim Crow for a century after the war. Jim Crow seems about gone. African-Americans hold real and growing political power in the South. The major divisions in the country are no longer North and South, but Red and Blue, Coastal and Flyover country. As a recent controversy in Oak Bluffs about a Confederate plaque on a Civil War monument demonstrates, the memorial issue is unsettled.

    • Brian:

      Nice comment. Makes me recognize that the reconciliation involved white Americans mostly. Blacks, the great majority of whom served in the Union army needed none. Then, as you point out while the nation was trying to heal the wounds of the war blacks were going to enter the dark days of Jim Crow which lasted for up to a century. The Civil Rights Act of the 1960s went a long way to begin to bury Jim but he lingered for a long time after that, habits are hard to break. Perhaps it has only been in the last twenty to thirty years blacks are beginning to achieve a level of equality with whites.
      Blacks are gaining political power throughout the country as you note. As their voices grow we will be faced with the issue of how do we deal with anti-bellum and Confederate matters. Do we change the name of our nation’s captial which honors a slave holder?
      I wish I had the answers but you are right when you say the matter is unsellted.

  3. Thank you, Matt.

  4. Congratulations on your service, Matt. Here’s a salute to all of our veterans, living and dead.