The first official Memorial Day observation (then called Decoration Day) was held on May 30, 1868 at the former mansion of Robert E. Lee in Arlington, Virginia.
Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
There were no “foreign” soldiers honored in that first solemn ceremony, since both Union and Confederate soldiers, dead in battle, were Americans.
Later, Lee, who forsook a call to guerrilla war and insurgency, put his country ahead of his heritage. Before all, Lee elevated reverence to God. After obtaining parole by oath of allegiance–the same one the soldiers under his former command pledged–Lee committed himself to healing the wounds of the war.
To a mother, who brought him her two sons, loudly expressing her hatred of the North, he said, ” Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form but one country, now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”
We have not learned the lessons Lee taught us in those early Memorials.
Today, an increasingly bifurcated America places its patriotism in politics, tribal allegiance, and causes looking for hills to die upon. Just 150 years ago, men died upon hills for the same kinds of causes, politics, and tribes. Both sides believe they are the righteous, with either God or Reason as their shield and spear.
We can only wonder when we may again take up arms against one another.
Lee quietly served his remaining years as president of Washington College, and honored at Virginia Military Institute, teaching young people to honor their country without bitterness.
Lee came to Lexington on a mission. “I think it is the duty of every citizen, in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony,” he wrote the trustees. “It is particularly incumbent upon those charged with the instruction of the young to set them an example.”
Now, the city of Charlottseville is dealing with removal of Lee’s statue (along with “Stonewall” Jackson’s) amid calls to scour the images and heritage of the Old South and Confederacy from America’s public places. (The city council voted 3-2 in February to remove the statue from Lee Park.)
Lee would have (and in fact did) opposed any statue depicting himself in Confederate uniform, leading troops in war. For him, the war was over and peace became his purpose. These statues were erected (including the one in Charlottesville) long after his death. He would likely have been in favor of any action to remove statues of himself if it would further the cause of unity.
But he would rather we didn’t dismantle the lessons he held dear from the time of war.
In the summer of 1869, Lee was asked by David McConaughy to visit Gettysburg. Lee declined. He wrote McConaughy to say: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
As we celebrate Memorial Day, let’s remember that our heritage as Americans is one heritage. Whether a grave is Confederate, Union, or in one of the National Cemeteries that dot our nation, our men and women who died in battle did so as Americans.
Whether the grave is a Navajo “talker” from the Pacific in WWII, a Jewish soldier who helped liberate a death camp (550,000 Jews fought in the U.S. armed forces in WWII), a member of the Tuskegee Airmen Red Tail Squadron, or a Japanese member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, they are all Americans. There is no difference between the grave of Captain Humayun Khan and Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, killed in combat in Afghanistan on April 8. They both died serving the same America.
In death, there is no racial identity or family heritage, only honor and gratitude to be given for those who gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
We, the living, must dedicate ourselves to a larger concept of our nation, not as hyphenated Americans, but as members of a singular nation. Surely, that’s what Robert E. Lee would have wanted on Memorial Day.
[Edit: the original implied that Lee was president at VMI. This has been corrected.]