Memorial Day this year was marked by the publication of a strange, ahistorical article about the meaning of the holiday from John Daniel Davidson at The Federalist. Under the cheerful headline “What the Origins of Memorial Day Can Teach Americans About Getting Along,” Davidson praises Memorial Day as a civic ceremony that helped heal the nation immediately after the Civil War by “honoring all who gave their lives, regardless of what uniform they wore.” “Memorial Day Began As An Act of Reconciliation,” reads one of his subheads, and he describes the first large-scale Memorial Day commemoration like this:
Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife presided over a ceremony organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, at Arlington National Cemetery, the former home of Lee. After speeches, Union veterans and the orphaned children of veterans walked through Arlington scattering flowers on both Union and Confederate graves.
This is a lovely image of national forgiveness and reconciliation (at the expense of black people, as usual), even if it doesn’t necessarily support Davidson’s conclusion that we should leave Confederate monuments standing. It’s undeniable that, over time, Lost Causers sold the nation on the idea that Memorial Day should honor Union and Confederate dead alike. But whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing (spoiler: it’s a bad thing) is a separate discussion from whether or not we should misrepresent its origins. So how accurate is Davidson’s portrait of the tone and purpose of the earliest Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery?
Not even a little bit, it turns out! Like claim that the South seceded over “state’s rights,” the idea that Memorial Day was always about reconcilliation is one of those sweet-sounding lies that crumbles the second you examine primary…