Decoration Day

 An amazing sequence of events began to unfold the first year after the end of the War Between the States. As far back as April 25, 1866, some southern women from the little North Central Mississippi town of Columbus were decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at Shiloh, one of the bloodiest battles of the War. They placed fresh spring flowers on the graves of their fallen heroes, soon realizing the graves of the Union soldiers were bare because there were no family members to care for their burial sites and to memorialize them. The women began to lay flowers on the Union soldiers’ graves as well as the graves of their own Confederate dead. It was a day of remembrance of the young soldiers who had been reluctant to fight a cruel war that meant they would have to kill or wound their fellow countrymen.

Three years after the end of the War, in May of 1868, modeling the tribute paid by the women of Columbus, Mississippi, Union General John A. Logan declared May 30 as “Decoration Day.” That first year, 5,000 gathered at Arlington Cemetery. The remembrance ceremony started at the top of the hill at General Robert E. Lee’s home place. They draped the portico in black, depicting a time of mourning the fallen; they made speeches, and the children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphanage and members of the Grand Army of the Republic (a Union veteran’s organization) sang hymns and walked through the cemetery strewing flowers and placing flags on the graves of the country’s heroes, both North and South.

In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the actual birthplace of Memorial Day because on May 5, 1866, they first honored local heroes of the War Between the States. After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars, and in 1971, an Act of Congress declared it a national holiday. Tradition is still the same. We decorate the graves with spring flowers and small flags. We are a country of traditions, and we will honor our war heroes now and forever.

We all have our stories. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Goode Clarke, a Captain in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, with his sons, Jonathan and Albert Henry, fought and fell at the Battle of Gettysburg.  Their dust and DNA are still on that battlefield. We remember them in a little cemetery in Sarepta, Calhoun County, Mississippi, where the Sons of Confederate Veterans have placed stone monuments and small Confederate flags to their memories, in a row, beside my great-great grandmother, Margery Brown Rogers Clark’s burial site.

I dedicated my first historical fiction novel, The Mississippi Boys, to the Clark men who gave all, the epilogue ending with these words:

 … my heart beats like a muffled drum as I think of how it might have been and I lay an imaginary wreath upon their graves, somewhere out there on the Wheatfield or on Cemetery Ridge or perhaps in the Peach Orchard or in the marshy place. It matters not, for God knows the precise location of their dust, and at the resurrection, we will glory in his infinite creative, for He will gather us together and catch us away to be with him nevermore to part. 

Thursday afternoon, I had the profound privilege of speaking to the residents and staff of Mease Manor at Memorial Day Celebration 2015 in Dunedin, Florida. I displayed my books on a beloved Confederate Flag, given to me by my friend, George, from Maine, if you can believe that! I proudly display it at every book signing in honor of my forebears. I told the story of Shiloh—how that once a year, our Creator God decorates that battlefield with beautiful blossoms of pink and white from the peach trees and dogwoods and redbuds and privet, from Pittsburg Landing to the Widow Bell's peach orchard and her home at the far end of the battlefield; and in between, the hornet's nest, Shiloh Church, and the Bloody Pond—a story of war, of hate and death, of love and life and restoration that issued from that day of battle.

But before the service started, I mingled with the staff and as the residents began to come in and take their seats, I talked with some of our returning heroes from World War II and forward. Their stories are amazing; their photographs displayed on the tables, reminiscent of those years. Most of us seventy-five years of age and younger haven’t a notion what they endured. We have them romanticized in movies, in their photographs all uniformed up, and we see them kissing their wives and sweethearts good-bye in those deep knee-bending images, boarding the ships, and leaving, some of them to return in a flag-draped coffin. Thank God for those who survived and came home though weary and battle worn.

We say we feel their pain, but do we really? Unless we served, we cannot feel their pain, but we readily celebrate their return home when the wars are over. That is the very least we can do.

After a few minutes, I turned toward my table again and there was a lovely lady in her nineties pouring over my book covers and the Confederate Flag. I sat still until she finished. Then she turned and faced me and very proudly declared, “I’m J.E.B. Stuart’s great granddaughter.” I stood and put my arms around her. I could not believe it. I visualized the young General Jeb Stuart, audacious and colorful with the interminable plume in his hat, riding high-booted in the saddle across the Shenandoah Mountains and Valley, commanding General Robert E. Lee’s Virginia Cavalry. It was a pleasure to meet Flora Dunham, a member of the Mary Custis Lee Chapter 1451, Clearwater, Florida, United Daughters of the Confederacy. We bonded in two minutes, and I introduced her as I finished speaking. I’ll have to say to you, those Yankee Senior Floridians gasped, possibly not realizing that they had been rubbing shoulders with someone that was directly related to a Civil War hero. There were only a handful of southerners in that gathering room, but all barriers were down, as they became one with the women of Columbus, Mississippi in 1866 and Jeb Stuart's great-granddaughter, Flora Dunham. When it comes to celebrating our forebears who fought—well, love has no boundaries. They gave Flora (and me) a big round of applause.


Proud to be an American!
Proud with Flora Dunham to be a Southerner!
Deo Vindice,

Jane Bennett Gaddy, Ph.D.
General M.P. Lowrey 1608 United Daughters of the Confederacy

Blue Mountain, MS

P.S. I met another new friend. I was so impressed with him. A veteran, a pilot, and a delightful young man. He was much younger than most of us, but he dared to come right in and participate. Here's a salute to John Kenefick from St. Petersburg, Florida! John, I hope you love the story of Shiloh in JOAB!


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