Every spring or summer I would spend a few weeks on family farms near Mentone or Pisgah and Dutton, Alabama up on Sand Mountain. Back around 1963 or 1964 my visit with family coincided with Decoration Day, predecessor to Memorial Day.
I was jsut a kid but what I remember most about that day was the somber tone. Usually when we piled into Uncle Burton’s battered old truck with a picnic basket and set out for a swimming hole on Pisgah Creek there was laughter, teasing, and joking.
This trip was memorable because it was different. We left the dogs behind and instead brought some hand tools like rakes and shovels. It was a work day, and I was set to pulling weeds around the head stones. But unlike when I helped in the vegetable patch or tagged along out to the cotton or corn fields, there was almost no conversation.
To be honest it was unnerving. Perhaps that is another reason that this memory is so vivid after all of these years.
Where It Began
In the closing months of the Ciivil War, and in the years that followed, communities gathered for somber commemoration ceremonies. One of the earliest of these took place in Charleston, South Carolina.
When Confederate troops evacuated the burning city many of the people living among the ruins were former slaves. In late April 1865 these recently emancipated people began exhuming the mass grave of Union soldiers that had died while being held as prisoners at the Charleston race track. They then created a new cemetery. On May 1, according to a reports published in the The New York Tribune and The Charleston Courier, a crowd of 10,000 people including freed slaves and “white” missionaries, staged a parade around the race track.
According to the published stories, thousands of “black children” carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body” during the parade. Members of Black Union regiments attended as honor guards. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible.
Officially Decoration Day dates to May 30, 1868. An organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established this as a day of remembrance. The graves of soldiers that died in combat would be honoroed y having their graves decorated with flowers.
The first official observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The veranda of the Arlington mansion that was once the the home of General. Robert E. Lee were adorned with black bunting.
General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremonies. After speeches from government officials, offices, and veterans, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, placing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. This was followed by hyms and prayers for the families of fallen soldiers, and for national healing.
Unifying The Nation
National healing and unification after the tragedy that was the American Civil War was a long time coming. In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday.By the dawn of the new century, many cities and communities observed Memorial Day. Numerous states had had declared it a legal holiday.
After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars. But it wasn’t until 1971 that Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May. And that is the orignins of the tradition at Arlington National Cemetery in which a small American flag is placed on each grave, and the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In the states that once formed the Confederate States of America, divisions ran deep. Decoration Day celebrations often honored the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrated Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observed it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3. Tennessee actually callied it Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrated Confederate Heroes Day on January 19. In Virginia the last Monday in May was designated Confederate Memorial Day.
Still, many of these states also honored the fallen dead on the holiday at the end of May. That was another reason I remember my childhood experience with Decoration Day. Even at that young age it seemed odd to see the line of weathered headtones adorned with a blending of American and Confederate battle flags fluttering on the breeze.
That sunny day that I remember so well took place sixty years ago. The horrendous war that so many people celebrate by waving the flag associated with rebellion ended more than one hundred fifty years ago.
This Memorial Day, as is my custom, I walked through Mountain View Cemetery taking time to read the inscriptions of veterans headstones. The POW flag and American flag unleashed a swirl of emotion about our nations past, and worries about our nations future as we have embraced division over unity.