The Con­fed­er­ate gift to the na­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY WESLEY PRUDEN

Me­mo­rial Day is done and gone, and mil­lions of Amer­i­cans prob­a­bly still don’t know what it’s sup­posed to be all about, beyond a pic­nic with hot dogs and six­packs in the park. In Wash­ing­ton, it’s an oc­ca­sion to add an ex­tra day to the week­end for the no­ble and over­worked bu­reau­cracy. But the ori­gins of Me­mo­rial Day have important things to teach, some of them dan­ger­ously po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect.

Me­mo­rial Day be­gan as a Con­fed­er­ate holiday — Con­fed­er­ate! God save the mark! — only a year af­ter the end of the great War Be­tween the States. The ladies of Columbus, Georgia, went to the grave­yard with bro­ken hearts to dec­o­rate the graves of their hus­bands, sons and brothers who had died de­fend­ing hearth and home from the depre­da­tions of old Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man on his in­fa­mous march from At­lanta to the sea.

“I can make the march,” Sher­man said to Abra­ham Lin­coln, “and I can make Georgia howl.” He would cut a path of fire, death and de­struc­tion so com­plete that “if a crow flies across Georgia it will have to carry its own ra­tions.”

The ladies of Columbus dec­o­rated the graves with flags and flowers in re­mem­brance of what love and sac­ri­fice had wrought. They dec­o­rated the few Union graves among their dead with flowers, too. “They were cruel,” said one of the ladies of the Yan­kee in­vaders, “only to be true to their cause.” This sim­ple act of gen­eros­ity was quickly noted by sev­eral important news­pa­pers in the North.

“The ac­tion of the ladies on this oc­ca­sion,” said the Daily Na­tional In­tel­li­gencer in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, “in bury­ing what­ever an­i­mosi­ties or ill feel­ing may have been en­gen­dered in the late war to­wards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and con­dem­na­tion.” The Cleve­land Daily Leader agreed: “The act was as beau­ti­ful as it was un­selfish, and it will be ap­pre­ci­ated in the North.”

The New York Com­mer­cial Ad­ver­tiser drew a last­ing les­son: “Let this in­ci­dent, touch­ing and beau­ti­ful as it is, im­part to our Wash­ing­ton au­thor­i­ties a les­son in con­cil­i­a­tion.” Two years later, at the be­hest of Gen. John A. Lo­gan, who was wounded at the bat­tle of Fort Donel­son in Ten­nessee and be­came the com­man­der of the Grand Army of the Repub­lic, a com­mem­o­ra­tive as­so­ci­a­tion of Union vet­er­ans, es­tab­lished the holiday as a fed­eral re­mem­brance. To the ir­ri­ta­tion of some of his col­leagues, he ac­knowl­edged the holiday’s ori­gins. “It is not too late for the Union men of the na­tion to fol­low the ex­am­ple of the peo­ple of the South.”

And so Dec­o­ra­tion Day be­came a day of re­mem­brance and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion across the land, later to be called Me­mo­rial Day, and still, par­tic­u­larly in the small towns of the South, a day of dec­o­rat­ing graves of Con­fed­er­ate sol­diers of the War Be­tween the States with flowers and flags. This year, as in many years be­fore, my beloved sis­ter Joan went to a coun­try grave­yard in Arkansas with a clutch of tiny flags, of both Union and Con­fed­er­ate per­sua­sion, to re­mem­ber those who gave the last full mea­sure of de­vo­tion in the ser­vice of God and coun­try. She stooped with par­tic­u­lar care to put a tiny ban­ner of the Stars and Bars next to the head­stone of Cpl. David J. Pruden, late of Cocke’s Reg­i­ment of an Arkansas army of the Con­fed­er­acy.

The Union adop­tion of a Con­fed­er­ate holiday was par­tic­u­larly poignant, and un­ex­pected, so soon af­ter Ap­po­mat­tox. Men who had fought to the death for four mis­er­able years put aside bit­ter re­mem­brance to em­brace each other as friends. Grant be­came friends with Lee, and Joe John­ston, as an old man, whose army had fought Sher­man’s at At­lanta, stood for an hour in a cold rain to pay honor to the pass­ing of Sher­man’s fu­neral cortege, caught cold and then pneu­mo­nia and died four days later.

Such men would not un­der­stand the cur­rent fashion of con­tempt for old foes, the tear­ing down of mon­u­ments to brav­ery, courage and de­vo­tion to hearth and home. They wouldn’t know what to make of the Epis­co­pal di­vines of the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral who cel­e­brated broth­er­hood not long ago by punch­ing out tiny images of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jack­son in a stained glass com­mem­o­ra­tion of their faith in the Christ.

Fran­cis Miles Finch (1827-1907), a judge in Ithaca, New York, was moved by the ges­ture of the ladies of Georgia to write a poem that be­came fa­mous in its day. “No more shall the war cry sever/Or the wind­ing rivers be red/They ban­ish out anger for­ever/When they lau­rel the graves of our dead/Un­der the sod and the dew/Wait­ing the Judg­ment Day/Love and tears for the Blue/Tears and love for the Gray.” Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of The Times.


Robert E. Lee

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