By MARSHA MERCER
For most of us, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, a long weekend of cookouts, beach trips and sales. It didn’t start out this way.
On Decoration Day, as the holiday was first called, sorrow was still achingly fresh. We were a country of 31 million people in 1860 -- 22 million in the North and 9 million in the South, including 4 million slaves. Estimates of the lives lost in the Civil War range from 620,000 to 850,000.
In the wake of the devastation, women in the South and in the North flocked to local cemeteries to decorate soldiers’ graves with spring flowers. Commerce ceased on Decoration Day as people took time to think and grieve. And yet the hard nub of bitterness persisted.
Arlington National Cemetery was founded in 1864 to bury Union dead on 200 acres at Robert E. Lee’s plantation on a hill overlooking Washington D.C. Although
Confederate soldiers were also buried there, family members of the Confederates were not allowed to decorate their loved ones’ graves and sometimes even were denied entrance, according to the cemetery’s website.
Then, in 1901 in an attempt at reconciliation, hundreds more Confederate soldiers were reburied in a special section of the cemetery. Their headstones had an unusual pointed top to distinguish them from the rounded Union headstones. Southerners said the point would “keep Yankees from sitting on them.”
A Confederate Monument was authorized, paid for by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and built by a prominent sculptor and Confederate veteran, Moses Ezekiel.
President Woodrow Wilson, first Southern president elected since the war, spoke at the dedication ceremony on June 4, 1914, a day after the 106th anniversary of the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
“My privilege is this, ladies and gentlemen: To declare this chapter in the history of the United States closed and ended, and I bid you turn with me with your faces to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire one another,” Wilson said.
The Virginia-born president’s words were more an aspiration than an accurate account.
The ornate monument extols a romanticized version of the Old South with 32 life-size figures, urns, shields, Biblical symbols and a Latin inscription – “Victrix causa diis placuit sed victa Catoni.”
The phrase from the poet Lucan translates as “The victorious cause was pleasing to the gods, but the losing side (or cause) pleases Cato,” roughly equating Lincoln with the tyrant Julius Caesar and the Confederacy with Cato who fought Caesar valiantly but lost.
Americans are still struggling with how to remember the Civil War. New Orleans has taken the lead by removing four Confederate monuments. First to go was the most appalling – an obelisk to the Battle of Liberty Place, honoring a white supremacist group that killed members of the city’s integrated police force and state militia in 1874.
Three other monuments -- honoring Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis – were also removed until suitable locations can be found.
“There is a difference between the remembrance of history and reverence of it,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.
That distinction – that we can and should remember the past without idolizing it – is important as we try again as a country to move forward.
One way may be to shift our focus from the famous figures on pedestals to the forgotten fallen, those whose names are inscribed on crumbling monuments on courthouse greens across the country.
On Memorial Day – a federal holiday since 1971 and the Vietnam War -- we honor all Americans who died in military service. Just as in the Vietnam era, during the Civil War a draft swept many into service. In the 1860s, those who could afford it could hire a substitute.
This isn’t to say we overlook, or give a pass to, the Cult of the Lost Cause, the concerted attempt after the Civil War “to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity,” as Landrieu said. Not at all.
Communities need to decide which statues should be moved and where they should go. But cemeteries are a proper place for grandiose monuments to dead people and dead ideas.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.