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PRUDEN: Marking the mystic chords of memory
The crowds came over the weekend to visit Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of the nation’s heroes and the national refuge of broken hearts.
The long line of holiday visitors moved reverently down the lanes through rows of white marble headstones, with only the low chatter of conversation breaking the stillness on the hill where Robert E. Lee’s mansion gave the graveyard its name.
Most of the markers are carved with only modest biography: names, dates, ranks and names of the states from whence men answered their country’s call to arms. Memorial Day is still observed at Arlington as it was meant to be observed.
Like all our national summer holidays, the day is observed mostly with picnics, the occasional burst of fireworks creasing the night sky, raucous noise billed as music and the swilling of enormous quantities of brewed beverages. Memorial Day is different, if only by degree. But its origins are lost in argument, its original purpose shrouded in the fog of forgetfulness. Several cities in both North and South claim to be the holiday’s birthplace, but the ceremonies and parades that once made it a holiday second only to the Fourth of July have been relegated to the dustbin of memory.
President Lyndon Johnson four decades ago declared Waterloo, N.Y., to be the official birthplace of Decoration Day (as it was first called) but the women of the South decorated the graves of their fallen sons even before the Civil War ended, commemorated in a hymn, “Kneel Where Our Loves Lie Sleeping,” published in 1867. Memorial Day was first “officially” declared the following year by Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic—not an army at all, but a forerunner of the American Legion—who rode across the Potomac on May 30 of that year to decorate the graves of both Union and Confederate dead. His decoration of Southern graves was not widely appreciated by the Radical Republicans who presided over the capital that time of bitter division.
The most persuasive claim for the origin of a decoration day is made by Columbus, Ga., where the widow of Col. C.J. Williams of the 1st Georgia Infantry tended his grave with their little daughter, after he died in the early days of the Civil War. She visited his grave every day, to sit in reflection of “the mystic chords of memory” while their little girl plucked weeds from unmarked graves nearby and covered them with flowers. She called them the graves of “my soldier boys.” A short time later, as a contemporary account told it, “the dear little girl was summoned by the angels to join her father,” and the widow, now childless, took up the little girl’s practice of caring for soldiers’ graves.
In March 1868, about the time that Gen. Logan was first thinking of visiting Arlington with his flowers, the Widow Williams suggested setting apart one day every year as the occasion for “love to pay tribute to valor.” She suggested April 26, and to this day in hundreds of graveyards across the South women pay separate tribute to Southern valor by placing tiny Confederate battle flags at the foot of the graves of their honored dead.
From the beginning, the tribute to the memory of sacrifice was an attempt to bridge the partisan divide. Politicians in both North and South were eager to wave the bloody shirt come election time, and it was the women who were, as usual, the civilizing influence. But civilizing men, as most any woman is eager to tell you, is not always easy. The echoes of shot and shell that had summoned men to battle were barely beginning to fade when America stood at the cusp of war with Spain just as the century ended. Not everyone though it was a good idea to organize Southerners into an army so soon after Appomattox. Someone had the good idea of offering command to a former Confederate officer, and to Gen. Joe Wheeler, a hard-hitting cavalry commander from Alabama who briefly delayed Sherman’s torching of Atlanta. He and his troops fought well in Cuba, though in the din of battle at Las Guasimas he forgot where he was and rallied his men with the cry: “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run again.”
He died with his boots on in Brooklyn a decade later, pleased to parade in his uniform of Union blue, and he is one of the few senior Confederate officers allowed to sleep in a grave at Arlington. The flags of the two American nations whose uniforms he wore decorated his grave this year.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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