Sunday, May 29, 2011

Looking at Memorial Day

Memorial Day, I was taught, was started 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, within a few years co-opted by the bereaved on both sides. At first the women of the North set aside 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 May 30 was designated. In recent years the date has been made flexible in order to allow a three-day weekend.

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 lost 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 reading this in an article by Adam Cohen in today's New York Times:

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 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.

He gets his information from an impeccable source, Dr. David Blight of Yale University, who has written several award-winning histories espousing this theory. In fact, Dr. Blight's take on that particular war has helped shape our perceptions of our wars, our history, and our racism.

Well and good, and I hope I'm not considered a racist (but I feel certain I would be by Dr. Blight) because of what Memorial Day means to me. I don't love the holiday (except that it usually falls on my birthday), and I certainly don't love the Civil War or the Southern cause. I Googled Memorial Day and found many an entry, not all of which support the idea that the day itself has helped the country to proceed with ignoring civil rights. This one I found quite fair and balanced, partly because it re-tells the old old story I grew up with, true or false. Don't miss the page on Mrs. Logan.

Let us observe the day tomorrow with not receiving mail, finding the bank closed, thinking of the real meaning of each and every war, and also not forgetting that somewhere within the long weekend was my birthday.