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Decoration Day--If You Can Reach the Cemeteries

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

Monday is Memorial Day and in American culture the preceding weekend has become the start of summer vacations and outdoor picnics. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should put a damper on these celebrations out of concern for public safety, but from the news we see the exercise of freedom means something different to each American. Regardless of our political leanings, this three-day weekend should give us pause to remember the clichéd phrase: “we are the land of the free because of the brave.”

Memorial Day has only been a federal holiday since 1971, but it has its origins in the years following the Civil War. The fact that this war, compared to the Revolution, serves as the impetus signifies the cultural watershed it was for Americans of all races and creeds. More than six hundred thousand people, nearly 2% of the population, lost their lives in the war.

The holiday emerged in a context of bittersweet commemoration. Inasmuch as the war propelled long-enslaved people to freedom, their struggle for equality was far from over in spite of the limited gains of Reconstruction. For those who lost combatants in the horrific bloodshed that characterized the battles, it was a time of mourning as well as for restructuring a war-torn region and collapsed economy.

In history, the search for origin points or “firstness” can be fraught with competing claims. The competing claims of Memorial Day’s origin from places as diverse as Charleston, SC and Waterloo, NY further testifies to the dual-response different groups of Americans had to the war. Two towns with the name of Columbus have staked claims for being the first to decorate soldiers graves. In Columbus, MS flowers were placed at the graves of the war dead from the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. In recent years, historian Richard Gardiner from Georgia State University, has argued that the idea of this first commemoration came from a woman’s club in Columbus, GA. As early as January 1866, the Women’s Memorial Association voted to decorate the graves of soldiers, and one of the club’s officers, Mary Ann Williams, wrote an impassioned letter for others to follow suit on April 26, 1866 that was printed in newspapers across the South. The chosen date in itself has specific Southern connotations given that it was the day that nearly 100,000 remaining Confederate combatants surrendered.

Other historians, including David Blight of Yale University, focus on decorations and commemoration activities performed by newly freed slaves. In his book Race and Reunion, Blight notes that thousands of freed slaves and other black residents along with a handful of white missionaries honored dead Union soldiers in Charleston, SC on May 1, 1865. This commemoration at a racing club track used for internment of prisoners and later the interrment of the dead was no small project. Black Charlestonians reorganized and reinterred the hastily buried bodies into neat rows, built a tall white fence around the plot, and marked it with a phrase recognizing the sacrifice the men gave in helping to secure their freedoms: “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Union songs, a drill reenactment, and impassioned sermons and speeches marked the day that caught the notice of a few northern papers, such as the New York Herald Tribune. Decades later, as Blight notes, the black commemoration was whitewashed.

These three Southern commemorations occurred earlier than the one that took place in Waterloo, NY, but this celebration was the impetus that seems to have made the day a federal holiday. Beginning on May 30, 1868, General John A. Logan called for veteran organizations and communities to pair together and honor “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.” (You can read more of his proclamation here: .) President Garfield marked the day at Arlington Cemetery on the former estate of General Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee, which was seized during the war for tax evasion and bought by the US Government for $27,000. Soon after its purchase in 1864, forty-four Union officers were laid to rest by Mary Lee’s flower garden.

The Boy Scouts and other organizations have carried the tradition of Decoration Day forward into the twenty-first century, but in Western Kentucky a local group of cemetery volunteers have been mowing and marking graves in what is now the Land Between the Lakes recreational area for nearly three decades. The construction of hydroelectric dams (Barkley and Kentucky) resulted in the internment of the eponymous lakes, and the historical communities, some of which had been there for a century and a half, were bought out and their residents evicted. Their homes and community buildings were either hastily bulldozed or left to ruin by the Tennessee Valley Authority and subsequent managers, the US Forestry Service. Because certain cemeteries were going to be underwater when the twin rivers were impounded, the affected dead were relocated to other cemeteries within the forthcoming park or to nearby sites across the river in Eddyville and Smithland. More rarely, stay permits were issued by the family and those graves flooded over along with thriving communities and rich farmland.

Former residents were assured by the managing government agencies that they would always be allowed entrance to their cemeteries and that access roads to them would be kept-up by the government. Some of these cemeteries are now miles down dirt and gravel roads off the main highway, the Trace. Many of these are in disrepair with the Forestry Service typically working on specific roads to have them prepared for individual reunions held by former residents annually at different cemeteries and former church sites. As noted above, Between the Rivers, Inc began cleaning these cemeteries thirty years ago, and continue to remove brush each winter to prepare for mowing them in the spring and summer. They often find the access roads, however, in terrible shape. They are littered with potholes every few feet for miles or muddy to the point that even 4x4s risk not being able to access gravesites. In the case of the above image, the casket of a former resident had to be carried at length by pallbearers and mourners because the hearse could not go further toward the cemetery.

The erratic weather has again caught the government off guard leaving the road to at least one of the largest cemeteries, Woodson Chapel, in serious disrepair. This did not perturb those who carried on with the flag draping ritual though as they marked it over the weekend. Given the ongoing pandemic and the situation with the Forestry Service forgoing its duties to the former residents, volunteers recorded and photographed the decorated graves of veterans from the Revolutionary War forward in touching tributes they posted on social media for families to see. In recent years, I have come to know various people from "Between the Rivers," and they are such a resilient and vibrant group.

As noted by my earlier posts, this blog seeks to inform people about cultural history and gender history, but is quite taken with concern over public access to history, preservation, documentation, and grassroots movements. Memorial Day has become a national holiday, more often marked with a picnic or backyard BBQ rather than remembrance for the dead. For this group of volunteers in Western Kentucky, however, they are keeping up the tradition with little help from the government agencies who moved in, forced their families off their multi-generational homesteads decades ago, and continue to fail at keeping their promises about accessibility to the graves of their loves ones. These graves deserve the same attention as those in the manicured lawns of our national cemeteries for the sacrifice and service of the men and women in them was much the same.

History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.

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