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Memorial Day

TALKING TO MYSELF: 25 May 2014  This essay, written several years ago, will be familiar to many of you. It has been published in Kentucky Humanities Magazine and is included in my book, Butter in the Morning. Yet, I return to it this weekend on the blog, because it reminds me once again, not only of the history of this unique holiday, but of the ongoing necessity for reconciliation in the affairs of men and nations.

Memorial Day 

Yesterday, Memorial Day, 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.  Unlike Veterans’ Day, full of parades and medals and ceremonies, Memorial Day is mostly about cemeteries, seems to me. No wonder Americans have turned it into a national picnic celebrating the arrival of summer. Otherwise, it would be the most depressing day of the year. Conceived in grief, birthed in our nation’s anguish, Memorial Day is the child of the Civil War, reminding us that war is, after all, about blood sweat and tears, whether one is right or wrong, wins or loses.

Johnny and Joe Green both managed to get back home to Owen County after the war, albeit with tuberculosis and other wounds to the soul. Their brother, George W. Green, with the “grey eyes, fair complexion,” did not. He died in a Military Hospital at Rye Cove, and lies, I presume, in an unmarked grave in a Virginia field.  How am I to feel about their sacrifice? I’ve long since given up trying to understand why poor Kentucky farm boys like the Green brothers gave their all to split the country in half.

In an undated daguerreotype, the only picture of him that survives, my John William has a merry look on his face. I wonder if he is the source of the Green family’s famous sense of humor, and I realize I’ve heard no stories about him.  I know only that he lived through the war to die of consumption when my Pawpaw Green was eight years old.  All of his children, including my grandfather, were born after his surrender and pardon at the end of the war. That’s justification enough in my opinion for our annual family picnic on Memorial Day weekend.

A number of towns across the nation, from the Deep South to the northeast, 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 at the end of the Civil War. I’ve read various stories about these early Memorial Day events, but the two I like best are these because they focus on healing the wounds of 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 the 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, because it surely must have been spontaneous and genuine, and was 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 endure until the end of time, let us then continue to have Marshall Plans in peacetime – at least old women and children strewing flowers on both friend and foe.

©Georgia Green Stamper