Friday, May 30, 2008

Decoration Day

May 30th is Decoration Day, the holiday that gave rise to Memorial Day.

[This happens to be one topic where the Wiki "talk" is full of nonsense despite definitive reports in US government documents and plenty of actual history. The US Civil War, also known as the War Between the States, the War of Rebellion, "that late unpleasantness", and the War of Northern Agression (despite being started by southerners firing on US military forces), is still a sensitive enough point to many that controversy erupts where you would least expect it. My take is at the end of this article.]

Decoration Day was a day to decorate the graves of men who had been killed in the US Civil War. Today we also honor men who fought and survived, but have since passed on. I will say a few words about a great-whatever uncle who fought in that war.

One of my distant relatives was in the 5th Michigan Cavalry that was under the overall command of General George Custer. He enlisted in 1863 and saw his first combat in the last skirmish of the battle of Gettysburg, in July of that year. The rest of his service reads like a history book. Long before I tore through Georgia on I-75, he rode through it as part of Sherman's march to the sea. He was even at the surrender at Appomattox, and marched in the victory parade in Washington DC. I simply cannot imagine the scope of what he saw, which include some of the most significant moments in American history that US college students are completely ignorant of. One of the things he did after the war was build a one-room schoolhouse on part of their farm. Maybe teaching runs in my blood.

Why is Decoration Day so controversial?

I think it is because this day of rememberance originated in the post-conflict conflict of Reconstruction. Those who had rebelled were not supposed to be honored, but their widows and family did so anyway, putting flowers on graves in military cemetaries on the anniversary of the loss of the war. (Some states still celebrate Confederate Memorial Day around the end of April.) Decoration Day became a holiday in Union (northern) states, set on May 30, at the instigation of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Southern states celebrated on a different day, just as they celebrated Robert E Lee's birthday rather than Lincoln's birthday, and just as ex-slaves celebrated Juneteenth (or its equivalent) when they learned they were free. I'm guessing they are still pissed off that the Union holiday got converted into the national Memorial Day holiday (to honor the dead from all wars) after WW I.

Armistice Day (November 11), a day to celebrate surviving WW I, evolved into Veteran's Day after WW II. I'll write about 11/11/1918 later this year.

No comments: