- - Sunday, May 28, 2017


It used to be called Decoration Day and was observed on May 30. Today it’s commonly known as Memorial Day and is celebrated on the last Monday in May, mostly to give Americans a long weekend. But it used to be a solemn remembrance of the nation’s war dead — by decorating graves with spring flowers.

Decoration Day was nurtured by the Civil War. The enormous loss of life on both sides moved communities to honor their dead as the weather warmed. May appeared to be the best month for such remembrance, although the specific day would vary for some years until 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans organization, set aside May 30 for a national observance.

But it was not a forgive-and-forget affair. The GAR had in mind the commemoration of only Union soldiers, which prompted one northern newspaper in 1869 to write an editorial entitled “Shall the Hatchet Ever Be Buried?” The paper lamented the prediction that Decoration Day “can never become national. It is an appeal to the patriotism of one section at the expense of the pride and feeling of the other section.”

Hence, for decades after the Civil War Decoration Day was essentially a Northern and Western holiday. To be sure, Southerners would establish their own Confederate Memorial observance in the late 19th century, but it was in a different month, usually April, and is still observed on a state or local option level in some areas.

No matter the staid and devotional ambiance of the northern commemorations, there was no evidence of burying the hatchet. In fact, as late as 1905 sermons given on May 30 still thought of the Civil War as the saga of the good guys versus the bad ones:

“[T]he victorious armies of the North,” said the Rev. John Sayers, “settled down to peaceful avocations and the hostile camp was transformed into the fraternal spirit of the Grand Army of the Republic. As again we thank God for his blessings to his country, we drop a tear of kindly remembrance over the graves of our dead.”

What should have brought North and South together on the matter of the Civil War dead was World War I, which accentuated the gravity of American sacrifices through an Armistice Day (later Veterans Day) and should have recognized the separate but scarcely equal observances of the war dead. But it didn’t. Even when the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922, only one of the many notables who spoke hoped to bridge the chasm between North and South:

“Visible in its distant beauty from the Capitol,” said Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft, “whose great dome typifies the union which he saved, seen in all its grandeur from Arlington where lie the nation’s honor dead who fell in the conflict. Union and Confederate alike, it marks the restoration of the brotherly love of the two sections in this memorial of one who is as dear to the arts of the South as to those of the North.

“The Southerner knows that the greatest misfortune in all the trials of that section was the death of Lincoln. … Rancor and resentment were no part of his nature. In all the bitterness of that conflict no word fell from his lips, tried as he was, which told of malice or unforgiving soul. Here is a shrine in which all can worship.”

The tragedy of the legacy of Memorial Day today is that there are those who still wish to erase Civil War history by demanding, and often succeeding, in changing street and building names that reflect Confederate leaders in Southern cities and towns. As if the effort somehow elevates their virtues supposedly imitative of Northern ancestors, without taking into consideration the historian’s barometer of assessing events in the context of the times in which they occurred — and not through the purified prism of present-day standards.

Worse, statues of such individuals are being removed — often under the cowardly cover of dark nights.

If this nation needs an example of the proper handling of the bitter aftermath of a civil war, one need only look to our mother country that witnessed a crisis that brought to power one of the most controversial leaders in history. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) used unlawful, fanatical, yea, genocidal, methods, in the English civil war that divided the nation then as much as it does even now, with some arguing that his methods paved the way to an eventual parliamentary democracy, others adamant that Cromwell’s means to that supposed end were reprehensible.

But Cromwell was an important part of British history.

And for that reason, his statue stands outside the houses of Parliament.

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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