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  • Mike Martinez

Happy Confederate Memorial Day

William Faulkner once observed that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” That wry observation seems especially appropriate for folks living in the American Southland. Some issues, especially involving the war that was fought on American soil from 1861 until 1865, are not dead, and maybe never will be.

I mention this point because April 26 is Confederate Memorial Day in Georgia. Although it is not a statutory holiday, Georgia governors typically mark the auspicious occasion with an executive proclamation. Groups dedicated to remembering Confederate history decorate graves in cemeteries around the state. I thought about this issue today because I went to visit my mother’s grave and noticed small Confederate battle flags decorating headstones in the older section of the graveyard.

Confederate Memorial Day

Ah, Confederate Memorial Day — I knew ye well. Back in the late 1990s, I worked with a group of scholars to edit and contribute essays to a book called Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South. The book was published in May 2000. It has been out of print for some years now and I have moved on to other projects, but occasionally a reporter writing a story on Confederate flags and monuments stumbles across my name and calls me to mull over the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten. When that happens, I pontificate on southerners’ curious fascination with the tumultuous events of 150 years ago.

Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South

Tavis Smiley even interviewed me about the Confederate flag controversy and whether the flag is racist on his radio program almost a decade ago. It is difficult to listen to the program now unless you have Real Media installed on your computer. It’s just as well. I sound like a scared little girl.

Tavis Smiley Show, June 5, 2002

By the way, I am not the leading expert on Confederate flags and monuments — I leave that distinction to my good friend John M. Coski, historian at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. He contributed a chapter to Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South and later wrote the leading book on the subject of the Confederate battle flag. John does an outstanding job of placing the flag controversy into historical context in a 2011 National Public Radio interview (available at the second link below).

Coski Bio

Coski on NPR

The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem

My claim to fame on the issue, such as it is, rests mostly on an essay I wrote in 2000. Along with a friend from Georgia State University, Robert M. Harris, I contributed a chapter titled “Graves, Worms, and Epitaphs: Confederate Monuments in the Southern Landscape” to Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South. Fans of the Bard of Avon will recognize the quote from King Richard II, wherein the king reflects on the fleeting nature of life:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:

And yet not so, for what can we bequeath

Save our deposed bodies to the ground?

Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,

And nothing can we call our own but death

And that small model of the barren earth

Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings.

Gore Vidal tells us that Abraham Lincoln was especially fond of this soliloquy, by the way.

I digress. Let’s get back to the subject of Confederate Memorial Day.

A day of commemoration for slain Confederate soldiers began shortly after the Civil War as southerners placed flowers and wreaths on the graves of their loved ones. Lizzie Rutherford of Columbus, Georgia, is often credited as the first person to suggest that a day be set aside to honor the dead, although her role has been a matter of dispute. Another grieving Georgia widow, Mrs. Charles J. Williams, occasionally has been mentioned as a possible originator of the Memorial Day tradition. In 1866, she published a plea to southerners to set aside a day “to be handed down through time as a religious custom of the South to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers.”

That a woman was the likely originator of the tradition is not surprising. A series of organizations known as Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) arose from 1865 until the turn of the century at the urging of influential southern women. Typically, the leader of a woman’s wartime soldiers’ aid society or a woman who had lost a husband or sons in the war organized a group of her friends and relatives. At an inaugural public meeting, she recruited volunteers to plan activities and solicit funding for erecting funereal monuments.

Whatever its origins, Confederate Memorial Day moved beyond LMAs’ efforts to honor fallen soldiers with cemetery monuments. By observing a day in honor of fallen Confederates, LMA members could “rescue from oblivion the memories of men who stand recorded as the world’s greatest heroes.” Moreover, by allowing southerners an outlet to express their feelings for the defunct Southern Confederacy, Memorial Day celebrations began a process of regional catharsis. Most southerners eventually finished grieving, acknowledged that their cause was irretrievably lost, and rebuilt their lives. In the North, Civil War Memorial Day was observed on May 30. Other southern states celebrated the Confederate version on various dates: April 26 (the day that General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his troops in North Carolina), May 10 (the anniversary of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s death), June 3 (Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s birthday) or one of several dates in June, depending on the state.

In later years, after membership in the LMAs dwindled as the original members died, a successor group, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), began to sponsor Memorial Day activities, battle for “true” Confederate history, and maintain museums and relic rooms. Founded in 1894, the UDC was not primarily interested in aiding the grieving process. Thirty years had passed. Rather than mourn the passing of loved ones, the UDC sought to memorialize Confederate soldiers by erecting monuments and establishing tangible symbols of southern pride, especially awards and prizes.

In 1899, for example, the UDC created the Cross of Honor to acknowledge worthy individuals with a presentation on Confederate Memorial Day. The UDC made the first award in Athens, Georgia, on Confederate Memorial Day in 1900. Although some Confederates pawned their crosses or, worse, gave them to Yankees, most veterans treasured the awards. Often the crosses were attached to ornamental black chains and placed on or near graves in Confederate cemeteries. It was a solemn occasion when a Cross of Honor was awarded, as this verse makes clear:

Take these crosses, a mute token

Of a sorrow left unspoken

By the lips of love unbroken

Through all change of time and tide.

Prize these badges as a treasure

Precious, priceless beyond measure.

Consecrated by a love

Deep and boundless as the ocean

A true woman’s life devotion

Love like He who reigns above.

The tradition of celebrating Confederate Memorial Day persists to this day. In Georgia, anyway, you can spot a familiar scene each April 26 — the graves of southern soldiers decorated with a small Confederate battle flag and the UDC Cross of Honor.

As Paul Harvey used to say — now you know the rest of the story.

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