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TALKING TO MYSELF: 28 May 2012 Today is Memorial Day. Though it has become mostly a holiday that marks the beginning of summer, Americans are reminded to pause, if only for a moment, to reflect on those who have served in uniform. I started to add “for our country” because that is the standard syntax, but the origins of Memorial Day remind me to be careful in my choice of words.
I thought about that yesterday as I stood at the graves of my great-grandfather, John William Green, and his brother Joseph, who fought for the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. Johnny and Joe both managed to come home, albeit with tuberculosis and other wounds to the soul, but their brother, George Washington Green, did not. He died in a Military Hospital at Rye Cove, Virginia, and lies, I presume, in an unmarked grave in a Virginia field. How am I to feel about their sacrifice?
Historians do not agree on exactly when or where the custom of decorating veterans’ graves with flowers and flags on a specific day began, but they do agree that it started during and/or just after the Civil War. Many towns across the nation, from the deep south to the north east, claim the distinction of holding the first Memorial Day ceremony, and there seems little doubt that spontaneous observations did occur in multiple places about the same time.
I’ve found many stories on the Internet about early Memorial Day events, but the two I like best are about the healing, the coming together, that should follow any war. On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the first “Decoration Day” observance was held in Arlington National Cemetery on the veranda of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s family home, Arlington. Union General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided. The U. S. Veterans Department’s website says, “After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.”
Two years earlier, on April 25, 1866, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, had gone to the cemetery where so many Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Shiloh were buried. They went with flowers to decorate the Confederate graves, but were so moved by the nearby neglected graves of the fallen Union soldiers, they decorated those, too. I think that is a beautiful story, even more impressive than the later ceremonial one at Arlington Cemetery, because it surely was spontaneous and genuine, and offered up by women who knew the harshness and divisiveness of the Civil War firsthand.
If we must have wars, as it seems we are doomed to have until the end of time, let us then continue to have Marshall Plans in peacetime – at least, old women and children strewing flowers on friend and foe alike.
[Addendum: John William Green's grandfather, Gerard Green, fought in the American Revolution, and his uncle, Fielding Green, in the War of 1812. His grandson, Delmer Dexter Green - my father - volunteered for the Army Air Corps soon after Pearl Harbor.]
©Copyright Georgia Green Stamper, 2012