published Monday, May 27th, 2013

Memorial Day born from Civil War horror

UTC professor, Kit Rushing, talks about the Confederate Cemetery near the UTC campus.
UTC professor, Kit Rushing, talks about the Confederate Cemetery near the UTC campus.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • photo
    Tiger Cub Scout Sam Ross places American flags on graves during a memorial weekend event Saturday at the Chattanooga National Cemetery in Chattanooga, Tenn. Scouts and their families from across the region came to place American flags on the more than 50,000 graves of soldiers and veterans at the cemetery.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

MEMORIAL DAY FACTS

• One of the first verified observances was in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866.

• Grand Army of the Republic Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared Decoration Day should be observed on May 30.

• Approximately 25 places, including Macon and Columbus, Ga.; Carbondale, Ill.; Richmond, Va.; and Boalsburg, Pa., claim to be birthplace of first Memorial Day.

• In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson declare Waterloo, N.Y., as the holiday's birthplace.

• After World War I the holiday expanded to honor dead from all wars, not just the Civil War.

• Congress declared it a national holiday in 1971.

• Gen. Logan's original order to establish the holiday declares: "We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverant visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

MEMORIAL DAY EVENTS

Area Memorial Day events, as supplied by area municipalities, Chattanooga National Cemetery and the National Park Service:

Chattanooga

Where: Chattanooga National Cemetery, 1200 Bailey Ave.

When: 11 a.m., 8:30 p.m.

What: 11 a.m. annual Memorial Day program; 8:30 p.m. Torchlight tour of the cemetery

East Ridge

Where: Pioneer Frontier Park, 1517 Tombras Ave.

When: 1 p.m.

Who: East Ridge and American Legion Post 95

Cleveland

Where: Courthouse Plaza

When: 10:30 a.m.

Dalton, Ga.

Where: Dalton Green, downtown Dalton, 117 N. Selvidge St.

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

To begin, today is about war dead.

It is about those lost in military service.

It began with those bodies, those thousands of bodies strewn across backyard battlefields in states whose men fought and died and whose women wailed, unable to make sense of it all.

Those same women found ways to carry their fallen sons, fathers, brothers and lovers home, if not always in flesh, then at least in memory.

Three years after the infantry charges ceased, the cannons fell silent and the living marched home, a Union general called for a day to honor the fallen.

But many across both the North and South had taken to visiting the graves in their communities. The majority were laid to rest in the South, where the fighting took place.

It's there that people took to calling it Decoration Day and adorned wooden grave markers with flowers. People gathered for speeches and picnics and to talk of those who were never coming home.

Jo Hill traces her family line to 23 Confederate veterans. She is the president of the A.P. Stewart 81 chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Chattanooga.

Hill honors both Memorial Day and Decoration Day, which is observed on separate dates in Tennessee and Georgia.

"When you [memorialize], that means remembering something," Hill said.

Knowing the holiday's history could help people appreciate the sacrifices of those being remembered.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga history professor Kit Rushing credits women such as Hill and the original UDC members for remembering the soldiers, especially those in the Confederacy.

It was they, he said, whose rage rose when they heard stories of neatly planned cemeteries near Gettysburg, Pa., and other war sites for Union troops, while Southerners' bodies decomposed in open fields long after the battles ended.

The massive toll of death shook the world view of many of the time, Rushing said.

"Its aftermath raised huge philosophical, psychological and spiritual questions," he said.

In the time-distant battles of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War there was not adequate transportation or record-keeping to allow bodies to be returned home.

But advances in the mid-19th century sometimes made that possible.

Within weeks of major battles ending, and sometimes months or years afterward, bodies would be exhumed and carried home.

Jim Ogden, ranger at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, said newly built railroads and the telegraph bore the devastating news of a soldier's death home rapidly, but a fledgling embalming industry also allowed for ways to retrieve loved ones.

Other firsts for the Civil War made a national mourning possible.

"One thing is simply scale, the sheer number of people who were dying, even in the first months of the war," Ogden said.

Burials, rituals and ceremonies honoring the dead exist across cultures and millennia, said UTC archaeology professor Nick Honerkamp.

But those practices were historically confined to the family or tribe.

Once people began living in nation-states, the idea of personally knowing all citizens, as in a tribe, disappeared.

Honerkamp speculated that enacting a national Memorial Day aimed to unify people touched by all of the death.

That goal wasn't lost on both sides of the conflict.

Walking among Rebel graves at the Chattanooga Confederate Cemetery last week, Rushing pointed out that visitors can see soldiers grouped together by their home states.

Not so in the national cemeteries.

Here, the Chattanooga National Cemetery was established by a general's order on Dec. 25, 1863, to hold the dead from the Battle of Chattanooga.

Rushing said that when asked if the Union bodies should be kept together by state, the general said no, to mix them.

The symbolism is not lost on the professor. By mixing the dead from various states, he said, the general was dismissing the regional divisions and embracing the idea of a unified nation.

But the holidays of Memorial Day and Decoration Day and the feelings between Northerners and Southerners in decades following the war did not unify.

Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans still mark Decoration Day.

In Tennessee the day is observed on June 3, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In Georgia the holiday is marked on April 26.

There were roots to the animosity. Taxes collected from Northerners and Southerners were used to build and maintain national cemeteries. But it wasn't until 1900, after the Spanish-American War, that Congress set aside land in Arlington National Cemetery for Confederate veteran burials.

Until then Confederates were not allowed to be buried in the national cemeteries, Rushing said.

Even time's passing didn't dampen everyone's fervor over the war. Rushing said many of the monuments erected came in the twilight years of Civil War veterans.

They wanted to mark their places in history and ensure that their experiences, often the defining experiences of their lives, were not forgotten, he said.

As late as the 1930s, nearly 60 years after the war's end, there are accounts of Civil War veterans getting in fistfights, Rushing said. Men in their 80s or older swinging at each other.

True acceptance of Memorial Day for the dead of all wars became more common following World War II, as family members who had lived during the Civil War died and the nation united on a scale never before seen to fight overseas enemies, Rushing said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

videos »         

photos »         

e-edition »

advertisement
advertisement
400 East 11th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
General Information (423) 756-6900
Copyright, Permissions, Terms & Conditions, Privacy Policy, Ethics policy - Copyright ©2014, Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may not be reprinted without the express written permission of Chattanooga Publishing Company, Inc.