Having been raised in the South, I was taught that by school and family that Memorial Day began in the South after the Civil War. Widows, mothers, and others who loved men who had lost their lives in the defense of the South in that tragic war went to cemeteries often and put flowers on the graves of their beloved men. It became institutionalized as Confederate Memorial Day, in a few years co-opted by the bereaved on both sides. At first the women of the North had their day for decorating graves, and they called it Decoration Day; but over time the two sides came together to honor all who died in the Civil War under the appellation of Memorial Day, and one day was set aside at the end of May to do so.
In the South, where many diehards still reside, there are pockets where Confederate Memorial Day is observed on various days in the year, but let us face it, there have been many more men lost in many other wars, and the memories of the Southern cause have been blurred by so many re-inventions that there is absolutely no point in defending anything about that particular war.
Imagine my surprise in later reading that Memorial Day got its start after the Civil War, when freed slaves and abolitionists gathered in Charleston, S.C., to honor Union soldiers who gave their lives to battle slavery. The holiday, the article stated, was so closely associated with the Union side, and with the fight for emancipation, that Southern states quickly established their own rival Confederate Memorial Day.
Since I’m not in the South any more, Memorial Day has a different meaning anyway. It honors Americans who have fought in all wars, and is a day to think of those who lost their lives in any of those battles. I was full grown when the government decision to move Memorial Day to whatever day of the month was the last Monday, and from time to time in certain years it falls on my birthday.
I was a baby during World War II and Memorial Day always symbolizes our victory in that conflict to me. I remember blackouts, the threat of German U-boats in Mobile Bay, and some vague fear of Nazis. One of my first memories was thinking I heard my grandfather say, “This war is terrible, but there has been no war as terrible as the Silver War.” This was so daunting that I and my little friends played Silver War to exorcise the threat—we thought the Civil War was a a rain of silver boulders more deadly than any cannonball or bullet.
Only when our daddies came home did we learn more about the war in which they’d fought and so many had lost their lives. They do not speak of it, but they returned changed and over time we are finding out why. Tom Brokaw, who is my age exactly, calls those men “The Greatest Generation.” I admire them too, but often have thought that his elevation of them to a state near sainthood comes from his being of an age in which there was no such war to test our young men and women.
Over the years, our country has been involved in other such conflicts and always our boys go bravely forward to fight. Recent wars may have been less easy to comprehend or to sacrifice our boys' lives for, but it is to our country’s credit that we have the spirit to support our troops and that this day has been set aside to thank the fortunate ones who are still with us and honor those who didn’t make it home.
Let us observe the day in the spirit in which it was intended, by thinking of the real meaning of each and every war, from the American Revolution through the Civil War and all the wars we have lived through. While we contemplate these greater meanings, let us hope there will soon be an end to the far away war our country is involved in now.