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Memorial Day Myths

Many lay claims to creating the day, but the truth is less blue than grey.

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Sunday Morning / May 28, 2023
Sunday Morning May 28, 2023

Though Memorial Day honors the fallen who’ve died in military battle, it effectively celebrates the U.S. Military as the cornerstone of American sovereignty. Formally observed since 1868, Memorial Day commemorates 81 American wars or conflicts and nearly 3 million military lives lost. But the holiday that falls on the last Monday of May reveals less about the American dream than its spirit.

American Folklore

The history of Memorial Day in the United States is complex. At least 25 places claim to have originated the custom of Memorial Day. On May 1, 1865, for instance, recently freed African Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers whose remains they’d reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. It has ignited an urban legend that African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina that persists to the present day.

According to the United States Library of Congress website, “Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end.” Yet records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day.

Many of the claims are myths, unsupported by evidence, while others are one-time cemetery dedications or funeral tributes, but a scholarly effort attempts to separate the myths and one-time events from the activities that actually led to the establishment of the federal holiday.

American Heritage

The United States National Park Service attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to a group of women of Columbus, Georgia. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, represented by Mary Ann Williams, wrote a letter to the press in March 1866 petitioning their assistance in establishing an annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. The letter was reprinted in several southern states, and the plans were noted in newspapers in the north. The date of April 26 was chosen, and the holiday was observed in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and elsewhere in Georgia as well as Montgomery, AL; Memphis, TN; Louisville, KY; New Orleans, LA; Jackson, MS and across the south. General John A. Logan commented on the observances in a speech to veterans on July 4, 1866 and commissioned General Order No. 11 to the Grand Army of the Republic to observe May 30, 1868 as Confederate Memorial Day.

American Nationalism

The Ladies' Memorial Association played a key role in using Memorial Day rituals to preserve Confederate culture. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate dead. The most important of these was the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 by World War I. They were strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.

Though their numbers have dwindled to 19,000 today, the United Daughters of the Confederacy has created a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the Confederate South. Changes in the ceremony's hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, historian David Blight observed, “the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Confederate South.”

Blue, Green and Gray

Among their ranks today is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) who appeared at a Georgia rally Thursday night serving MAGA fans with a modern incantation of the Ladies Memorial Association. Greene, mocking a Mexican accent, referred to the Capitol Riots in terms of armed rebellion. Noting that conservatives had been canceled or removed from social media for inciting hate and violence, the congresswoman moved on to talk about the Second Amendment. “It’s not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports,” she said. “The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if and when that becomes necessary.”

Green concluded her remarks with a poem by Francis Miles Finch’s “The Blue and the Grey” referring to the colors of the Union and Confederate Army’s uniforms.

Those who’re robbed of glory, those in the gloom of defeat; All with the battle-blood gory in the dusk of eternity meet. For under the sod and the dew, waiting the judgement-day; Under the laurel the blue, under the roses the grey.

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