Americans: We forgot to remember. (Memorial Day aka… Decoration Day)

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( For at least 700 years, a variety of cities, towns, and prominent families have adopted the Latin phrase Semper Fidelis – “Always Faithful” – as their motto. A couple centuries into this tradition, various military units throughout the world began to do the same. The United States Marine Corps is a relative newcomer to this trend, having officially adopted the motto in 1883.

Memorial Day aka... Decoration Day

As Memorial Day is again upon us, it is our solemn duty as Americans to honor the men and women who have died while serving in battle. Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day” because of the tradition of placing flowers and mementos on the graves of deceased soldiers. The holiday’s founding is tied to America’s deadliest war. On May 5, 1868, former Union General John A. Logan declared that there should be a national day to commemorate those who had died while fighting to preserve the United States. Logan, who led a Union veteran’s organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, said:

“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land”.

The desire to commemorate the 600,000 to 800,000 soldiers and sailors who were killed in the Civil War was not limited to the Union; the families of Confederate soldiers also began to honor their dead. Even today, many former Confederate states still choose to recognize those who took up arms against the United States. As a loyal American, it is exceedingly difficult for me accept that people can bring themselves to honor traitors, especially given that those who do so are most likely to oppose (sometimes violently) anyone who “disrespects” the American flag.

In any case, most Americans are unaware that what we now know as Memorial Day arguably traces its roots to enslaved people who were newly freed due to the Union defeating the Confederacy. (Notably, historical records indicate that relatives of deceased soldiers in the North and South began spontaneously decorating their graves shortly after the war commenced.)

In the Spring of 1865, Charleston, South Carolina, was all but destroyed by the war. Whites had abandoned the city rather than endure its occupation by Union soldiers. According to Yale historian Dr. David Blight: “Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.”

Conversely, Blacks – most of whom had been enslaved – stayed behind. In their jubilation, they began to hold celebrations to mark what they believed was a new chapter in America. They were also very mindful of those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” to secure their freedom.

Dr. Blight records that Confederates had converted Charleston’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into a prison for captured Union soldiers. Many of them died due to the horrid conditions and were unceremoniously buried in a mass grave. The formerly enslaved men and women reburied them with the dignity that they deserved and declared over an archway, “Martyrs of the Race Course”.

In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, Blight argues persuasively that white Americans from both the North and the South were preoccupied with restoring the Union. Unfortunately, such restoration came at the expense of recompense for those who had been enslaved. While the North won the war, the South won the peace. Specifically, most white Americans in the North bought into the “Lost Cause” (or “Noble Cause”) mythology that the South peddled. This mythology erased the racist reasons that caused the war (i.e., white supremacy and slavery).

Anyone who doubts the real reasons for the war merely needs to read the Confederate Constitution and the “articles of secession” from the various states that rebelled. By artificially imposing a false sense of geographic unity, the nation actually entrenched the racial division that haunts us to this day. By comparison, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has its flaws, but it acknowledged the reasons for, and ramifications of, apartheid.

I propose that America adopt a Latin phrase that, hopefully, will usher in greater understanding of our past and its ongoing impact on our present: Semper Commemoras – “Always Remember”.

Written by Larry Smith