Debate rages over who started Memorial Day. Towns and villages across the nation lay claim to being the first to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. At first, it was a day of remembrance for soldiers killed in action during the war. Many cities across America proper at the time were holding days of remembrance for them. Historians do agree, however, that Major General John A. Logan was the man most responsible for founding the official holiday with his issuance of General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868.
Although flowers were placed on the Confederate as well as Union graves, the wording of General Order No. 11 created hard feelings for many in the south. Southern states refused to officially acknowledge it. The Confederate Memorial authorized by President William H. Taft and the efforts of former Union officer and President William McKinley to see to the care of the Confederate dead at National Cemeteries did illustrate a national reconciliation with its past, but southern decoration days remained unchanged until after World War I when Memorial Day evolved beyond a day of tribute to Union Civil War soldiers. It finally became a day to honor all who had died in service to the United States. While the Southern states still maintained their own decoration days to honor their sons who had served the Confederacy, the descendants of those men continued the patriotic tradition of their families in the U.S. armed forces.
Korean War Medal of Honor recipient Col. Lee Mize once told me that, regardless of our past as a nation, we are all Americans. A fact hammered home to me many nights in Iraq where local translators often scratched their heads and look confused while soldiers from the north and the south traded good-natured barbs back and forth – failing to grasp how we could appear to be so cruel to each other and still work together or lay down our life in defense of our fellow countrymen.
There is probably no better evidence of this sense of American tradition than a walk through Arlington National Cemetery. The old family names of both Union and Confederate war heroes show the continuing service of their lineage in Spanish American, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other American conflicts hardly mentioned in history textbooks today. A particular gravesite in Section 11 does more to tell this story than any other. It is the final resting place of Army Air Corps Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest – the great grandson of Confederate General N.B. Forrest. He graduated West Point in 1928 and achieved the rank of general on Nov. 2, 1942 and assigned to the Eighth Air Force. He was flying a bombing mission over the Kiel Submarine yards six months later when his B-17 was hit and went down on Bu Rugen Island in the North Sea. His body wasn’t recovered until after the war and he was interred in Arlington National Cemetery. General Forest wasn’t the only one to die in combat in that war. General Simon Buckner, Jr., USA- the grandson of CSA General Simon Buckner - was also killed in action in World War II on the frontlines at Okinawa fighting the Japanese.
Even with these and countless similar stories, the traditional observance of Memorial Day has faded over the years. Many people have forgotten its meaning and traditions. At many cemeteries, the graves of fallen soldiers are increasingly ignored or neglected. Many cities and towns across the nation haven’t held Memorial Day parades in generations. Proper flag etiquette isn’t even observed and sadly, many people think the day is for honoring all dead and not just soldiers killed in service to our country
As Civil War reenactors, historians and preservationists, we need to remind family, friends, neighbors and the media what Memorial Day really is. It is not the unofficial beginning of summer, the day of the first barbecue or the first three-day weekend since February.
Until a fixed date is finally established, the last Monday in May is a national holiday founded to honor all soldiers, sailors and marines who have fought and died for this nation.
It is a day when the flag is raised to the top of the pole and lowered to half-staff. At noon, it is then raised to the top again.
It is a day when we remember who we are as a nation.
Some of you may ask why this is relevant to The Civil War Courier or the hobby in general. The fact is thousands of Civil War reenactors are now on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq serving this nation. At Franklin, Cedar Creek and countless other events, I have ran across soldiers, sailors and Marines who took leave to return home and participate with their units at these events. Men who told me they longed for the smell of wood smoke, the roar of cannons, the rush of cavalry and marching with their fellow soldiers onto the battlefield.
This Memorial Day The Civil War Courier would like to pay special tribute to all reenactors proudly serving this nation in the Armed Forces, especially to those who have made the supreme sacrifice for this nation. May God bless you all.