the very first memorial day -- 7/06/16

Today's selection from -- On Hallowed Ground by Robert M. Poole. The very first Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day) was a grief-filled occasion held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers that had so recently died. Confederate soldiers were neither welcomed nor mourned on that day. In fact, Arlington Cemetery itself had been established on the confiscated grounds of the then-hated Confederate General Robert E. Lee's mansion and plantation in retribution for his defection to the Confederacy:

"Union authorities barred Confederate mourners from the nation's first official Decoration Day at Arlington on May 30, 1868. Timed to coincide with the blooming of spring flowers, the celebration was es­tablished to honor the nation's war dead. The event, organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans group, had been the brainchild of for­mer Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, an Illinois congressman and radical Republican known for his combativeness and fiery oratory. Decoration Day, he wrote, would be set aside for 'cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes ... We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.'

"Hundreds of politicians, spectators, and old warriors answered Logan's sum­mons, crossing the river to Arlington, where the gnarled oaks sprouted new leaves and the hills were thick with new grass for the occasion. The mansion's columns were draped in mourning and bristling with flags. Military bands played hymns, cannons boomed their salutes to the dead, poetry was declaimed especially for the occasion, and patriotic prayers echoed among the graves. ('We come to mourn over a great national calamity,' the Rev. C. B. Boynton intoned, 'which partially and temporarily rent our Republic asunder, drenched the land with blood, dug it over for graves, and brought the death and shadow upon thousands of homes.') A one-legged general solemnly read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the crowd. Another general, James A. Garfield -- soon to be elected President Garfield -- made a long speech from the portico of [Robert E.] Lee's mansion, where the Virginian had paced alone just seven years before; for all that had transpired since, a century might have passed. ...

"Without mentioning Lee by name, Garfield reminded his listeners of the Confederate's leading role in the rebellion: 'Seven years ago, this was the home of one who lifted his sword against the life of his country, and who be­came the great Imperator of the rebellion. The soil beneath our feet was wa­tered by the tears of slaves, in whose hearts the sight of yonder proud Capitol awakened no pride [Lee's mansion had a commanding view of the U.S. Capitol], and inspired no hope ... But, thanks be to God, this arena of rebellion and slavery is a scene of violence and crime no longer!' ...

"At this, [a group of] war orphans formed lines, marched around Mrs. Lee's [former] garden, and spread blossoms over the graves of officers Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs had given a place of honor there; then the crowds trailed the children to the Tomb of the Unknown Civil War Dead, which was hung with garlands and flags; then out through the cemetery to decorate all of the graves -- except those belonging to several hundred Confederates at Arlington. This ceremony of remembrance, known as Memorial Day since it was declared a national holi­day in 1888, has been repeated in all the years since."


Robert M. Poole


On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery




Copyright 2009 by Robert M. Poole


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