Brow Beat

Should We Honor the Confederate Dead on Memorial Day? Let’s Ask a Union Officer!

A photo of William T. Collins.
Dr. William T. Collins.

Montana Legislative Assembly

Memorial Day this year was marked by the publication of a strange, ahistorical article about the meaning of the holiday from John Daniel Davidson at the Federalist. Under the cheerful headline “What the Origins of Memorial Day Can Teach Americans About Getting Along,” Davidson praises Memorial Day as a civic ceremony that helped heal the nation immediately after the Civil War by “honoring all who gave their lives, regardless of what uniform they wore.” “Memorial Day Began As An Act of Reconciliation,” reads one of his subheads, and he describes the first large-scale Memorial Day commemoration like this:

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife presided over a ceremony organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, at Arlington National Cemetery, the former home of Lee. After speeches, Union veterans and the orphaned children of veterans walked through Arlington scattering flowers on both Union and Confederate graves.

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This is a lovely image of national forgiveness and reconciliation (at the expense of black people, as usual), even if it doesn’t necessarily support Davidson’s conclusion that we should leave Confederate monuments standing. It’s undeniable that, over time, Lost Causers sold the nation on the idea that Memorial Day should honor Union and Confederate dead alike. But whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing (Spoiler: It’s a bad thing) is a separate discussion from whether we should misrepresent its origins. So how accurate is Davidson’s portrait of the tone and purpose of the earliest Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery?

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Not even a little bit, it turns out! Like claim that the South seceded over “state’s rights,” the idea that Memorial Day was always about reconcilliation is one of those sweet-sounding lies that crumbles the second you examine primary sources. The order issued by Gen. John A. Logan, of veterans’ organization the Grand Army of the Republic (and the Union Army), creating that first widely observed Memorial Day ceremony, said that the goal was to decorate “the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late Rebellion.” Lest there be any confusion, he also referred to soldiers who “united to suppress the late Rebellion” and notes that “their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” It’s possible Logan wanted to honor “rebellious tyranny in arms” on an equal footing with the Union dead, but honestly, how likely is it?

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What’s more, although there is at least one account of a Confederate grave being decorated in Indiana, that doesn’t seem to have been the case at Arlington. Newspaper accounts mention decorating Union graves only, and one Southern newspaper was outraged that women were prevented from decorating Confederate graves by a guard. Note, too, that Davidson links Lee’s former home and Grant’s attendance at the ceremony, as though both North and South were reuniting even then. Unfortuately for this theory, future president Gen. James A. Garfield spoke that day and directly addressed the reasons for choosing Lee’s house in particular for the ceremony. The answer is found in the closing passages of his speech, which are usually omitted when it is anthologized, for some reason:

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Several years ago this was the home of one who lifted his sword against the life of his country, and became Imperator of the Rebellion. This soil beneath our feet was watered by slaves. The beauty of yonder proud Capitol awakened in their hearts no pride and brought them no hope. The face of the Goddess that crowned it was turned toward the sea, and not toward them. But thanks be to God, this arena of slavery is the scene of vice no longer!

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In other words, the people commemorating Memorial Day in 1868 believed the Confederacy—explicitly and especially including Robert E. Lee—had fought for something vile and indefensible and were emphatically not there to honor, in Davidson’s words, “both sides, recognizing that each died fighting valiantly for a cause in which they believed.”  It turns out it mattered, in 1868, just exactly which cause you were willing to die for.

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In 1869, after reports that guards had again prevented flowers from being strewn on the graves of the Confederate dead, G.A.R. Adjutant General William T. Collins—who left Arkansas for Minnesota to enlist when the war broke out, ultimately losing a leg fighting for the Union at the Battle of Rappahannock Station—prepared a statement addressing the issue at the request of Gen. Logan. It’s a remarkable document that firmly refutes the idea that Memorial Day began as a means of reconciling the Union with the Confederacy. As David Blight chronicles at the Atlantic, that happened later; the Confederate Memorial pictured in Davidson’s article is part of the story, though he somehow forgot to mention that its sculptor included a weeping black “mammy” to illustrate, in the words of one of the statue’s boosters, “the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South” and to combat the “false ideas” spread by Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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You can talk all day about what a mistake it is to interpret the past based on the moral standards of the present, but when it comes to the Lost Cause, this kind of apologia only works if you ignore the fact that some people at the time saw things quite clearly. Here’s the end of Collins’ statement, which eloquently explains why the first Union Memorial Day celebrations were not—and should never have become—an “act of reconciliation” with the defeated Confederacy—at least not at the price of forgetting why the Confederates fought:

The Grand Army of the Republic seeks to honor and preserve the principles and institutions for which its members and their dead comrades fought. To keep green the memory of the latter is to make stronger the devotion to those who survive. Hence the institution of “memorial day.” Hence, too, the necessity of confining it to the one holy purpose indicated—that of honoring the men who died that the nation might live, and of thereby reviving in our hearts, and of those who are to come after us, the lofty devotion to freedom and Republican nationality, which marked the Republic’s grand army of the dead.

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Is such an act incompatible with the noblest idea of magnanimity? We know it is not. We strew flowers therefore on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the national cemeteries at the same time, on graves of such rebel dead as may be buried therein, not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark in this distinction and manner the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, Republican principles and those of a slave-holding oligarchy.

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We are ready to forgive—we hold no malice—but we will never consent by public national tribute to obliterate the wide gulf that lies between the objects, motives, and principles for which we fought and our comrades died, and those for which the rebel armies banded together, and for which their dead now lie in numerous graves.

They were brave, and we know it—none can better appreciate that fact than those who fought against them. But mere courage never ennobled treason. It cannot turn slavery into liberty, nor make despotic intentions desirable and to-be-applauded virtues. Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died. To do less than keep this distinction fresh in the national mind is to undermine the republic itself.

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