If there is one thing that brings most Americans together, it’s the love and respect we have for our veterans — especially those that paid the ultimate price for our freedom. The exact origins of Memorial Day, previously known as Decoration Day, is largely shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that it originated soon after the Civil War, America’s deadliest conflict. General (and future President) James A. Garfield presided over the first federally recognized Decoration Day in 1868 when 20,000 Confederate and Union graves in Arlington Cemetery were decorated in remembrance of their sacrifice. This somber day has been used in recent years to argue political points about statues, the place of the Confederacy in our nation’s psyche, and a few others. While Slate writer Matthew Dessem correctly points out that the first official Decoration Day occurred at the behest of Northern General John A. Logan in 1868 to honor union soldiers, the practice is actually recorded as early as 1866 in Columbus, Georgia. And women had a huge role to play in the known early history of Memorial Day and the preservation of historical sites, especially in the South.
To argue the politics of Memorial Day, however, completely misses the point. Memorial Day began first and foremost as a commemoration for Americans who died in the Civil War. It wasn’t until World War I that all of America’s war dead were honored. It was in this vein that veterans of the Civil War from both sides came together in early July 1888 at the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. In an event organized by Gettysburg participant and Medal of Honor recipient General Daniel Edgar Sickles of the Union Army of the Potomac, surviving members of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia were invited to join the surviving members of Sickles’ unit at Gettysburg to “record in friendship and fraternity the sentiments of good-will, loyalty, and patriotism which now unite all in sincere devotion to the country”.
30,000 veterans made it to Gettysburg that year, only about 300 were Confederates. Despite the lopsided turnout, the gravity of these former enemies sharing the field in friendship and brotherhood was not lost on those in attendance and it shouldn’t be lost today. With Americans now divided by politics more than at any point in recent memory, and some even saying more divided than any time since the Civil War, the words of Pennsylvania Governor James A. Beaver spoken at this first Blue-Gray Reunion rings rather poignantly. In his speech welcoming the Confederate veterans to Gettysburg, Governor Beaver said, “We welcome you because we need you; we welcome you because you need us; we welcome you because we together must enter into and possess this future”.
And perhaps once the dust settles, we too can share the sentiments of Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who said, “Yes, those were hot times then; but I’m all right now.”