News & Politics

How Memorial Day Became a Confederate Holiday

Originally meant to commemorate Union war dead, its purpose has widened.

A stereograph image shows President Grant and General John Logan at a reviewing stand on the first Decoration Day, 1868. Photograph by J.F. Jarvis/via Library of Congress.

John Branson is the current rector of Christ Church Episcopal in Old Town Alexandria, where Robert E. Lee worshipped and where 34 Confederate soldiers are still buried. Every year on May 24, the local branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, wearing their grays and bearing rebel flags, would hold a Confederate Memorial Day service. Branson says the rector before him put an end to the tradition. “The church has suggested that they take their ceremonies elsewhere.”

One member of the Confederate group calls the change of policy “intolerant.”

The parish still permits the group to hold a quiet wreath-laying ceremony in the churchyard but prohibits any display of Confederate regalia. “They have a full, formal color guard that they’d like to use, but they continue to display the Confederate flag, and we find that offensive,” Branson says.

Organizers of the National Memorial Day Parade, which will draw an estimated 300,000 people to the Mall on Monday, have taken a different tack. Among the many parade participants: veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, a high school marching band from Opelousas, La., Gary Sinise, the current Miss America, and a troupe of Confederate re-enactors marching to fife-and-drum tunes of “Dixie” and “Bonnie Blue Flag.”

The parade is a cornerstone of a holiday that honors Americans who died while serving in the military and, unlike, say, Columbus Day, it’s generally free of controversy. But whether Memorial Day honors Confederate soldiers in the same way it does, say, paratroopers who landed behind German lines on D-Day, is a question complicated by history.

Having the rebel vanguard in a procession of troops that fought for–not against–the United States, simply represents another chapter in “American military history throughout the generations,” says Tim Holbert, executive director of American Veterans Center, the organization that puts on the parade.

J.J. Smith, a member (rank: adjutant) of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Alexandria-based R.E. Lee Camp 726, had a great-great grandfather who served as a captain in the 45th Alabama Infantry. Smith will march in civvies on Monday — a seersucker suit if the weather turns hot — and sees the parade as an opportunity “to honor our ancestors, who were veterans in the armed forces, and what they stood for, which was independence.” He recalls one year marching past the Washington Monument when a spectator called out a “Three cheers for Jeff Davis.”

But the notion that Confederate soldiers belong in the pantheon of the United States military didn’t exist when Memorial Day took root after the Civil War. In 1868, Gen. John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans, formalized the day of remembrance by designating a date in late May, then called Decoration Day, for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion.”(A statue of Logan stands today in the center of the eponymous Logan Circle park.) His idea of a commemorative holiday didn’t leave room for Confederate nostalgia. As originally intended, it would commemorate only “the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion,” Logan wrote. “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.”

In a complete reversal of public attitudes, it’s nowadays remarkable just how unremarkable the honoring of Confederate history has become. “Wherever we’ve marched with the color guard, the response has always been very positive,” says Jay Barringer of the Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans (rank: commander). “Only an occasional person turns their back or flips us off.”

A description on the Maryland group’s website of the National Memorial Day Parade as their “march on Washington” is an unfortunate appropriation of Civil Rights verbiage, intentional or not. But National parade organizers aren’t making a particular statement by allowing Confederate re-enactors to march; rather they’re keeping with a prevailing way of thinking about the Civil War as a conflict between two sides with competing but reconcilable visions of American liberty.

Still, disagreement over the role of the Confederate legacy in Memorial Day celebrations flares up.

An 1885 cover of <em>Puck</em> shows James G. Blaine and John Logan standing next to a grave as Whitelaw Reid places a wreath labeled “To the Memory of Discord.” Via Library of Congress.

Early in President Obama’s first term, a group of academics that included prominent Civil War historian James McPherson asked him to end the tradition of sending a Memorial Day wreath to the Confederate Monument in Arlington, which they felt represented “the nadir of American race relations” and “a denial of the wrong committed against African Americans by slave owners, Confederates, and neo-Confederates, through the monument’s denial of slavery as the cause of secession and its holding up of Confederates as heroes.”

Obama opted instead to send wreaths both to the Confederate memorial and to the African American Civil War Memorial in the U Street neighborhood.

“Since the original purpose of Memorial Day was to commemorate the Union war dead, it does seem a bit inappropriate for a Confederate group to participate,” McPherson tells Washingtonian. “On the other hand, since the holiday now honors all Americans who have given their lives in wars, and (most) Confederates and their descendants have rejoined the Union, perhaps it is appropriate after all.”

How exactly to handle Confederate history and the people who constituted it — how to “remember their sacrifices for the cause for which they fought” as Barringer puts it — is always unsettled. But maybe the best measure of whether Memorial Day is now a Confederate holiday, too, would be to see what provokes more general outrage: a Memorial Day parade presenting Confederate soldiers as heroes, or a church forbidding the Confederate flag to fly on its grounds.