On this day in 1868, John Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, asked Americans to set aside May 30 “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 holiday, initially known as Decoration Day, later evolved into Memorial Day.

Although Logan’s Decoration Day began as a way of honoring the Union’s war dead, the custom of scattering flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers seemingly originated in the Confederacy. There are records of Southern women strewing petals throughout cemeteries even before the Civil War ended. And, most famously, a women’s memorial association in Columbus, Mississippi decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers in spring 1866. Many Northerners lauded this act of kindness. Frances Miles Finch, for instance, wrote “The Blue and the Gray” in honor of the spirit of reconciliation displayed in Columbus:

By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray
These in the robings of glory,
Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
In the dusk of eternity meet:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day
Under the laurel, the Blue,
Under the willow, the Gray.

From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for the friend and the foe;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.

So with an equal splendor,
The morning sun-rays fall,
With a touch impartially tender,
On the blossoms blooming for all:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Broidered with gold, the Blue,
Mellowed with gold, the Gray.

So, when the summer calleth,
On forest and field of grain,
With an equal murmur falleth
The cooling drip of the rain:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment -day,
Wet with the rain, the Blue
Wet with the rain, the Gray.

Sadly, but not with upbraiding,
The generous deed was done,
In the storm of the years that are fading
No braver battle was won:
Under the sod adn the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the blossoms, the Blue,
Under the garlands, the Gray

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.

These days it’s hard not to feel a bit cynical about Memorial Day. Instead of poetry, we have a day off from work and BIG SALES! Even with two wars going on, this year it seemed like the original meaning of the holiday was lost amidst a feeding frenzy of consumer culture. But there were still towns that held Memorial Day parades and heritage organizations that brought flowers to military cemeteries. In doing so, they kept the spirit of Decoration Day alive.

As for me, I set aside some time to think about the 4,000 people who died in the Revolutionary War, the 2,000 in the War of 1812, the 13,000 in the US-Mexican War, the 620,000 in the Civil War, the 2,000 in the Spanish-American War, the 115,000 in WWI, the 405,000 in WWII, the 36,000 in the Korean War, the 58,000 in Vietnam, the nearly 400 in the first Gulf War, and the approximately 5,000 (so far) in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then I remembered the women of Columbus, Mississippi, who rose above the carnage and bitterness of this nation’s bloodiest war and managed to recognize the humanity of their enemies.

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