The national observance of Memorial Day is held every year at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Now that is interesting, because Arlington National Cemetery occupies the grounds of Arlington House where Robert E. Lee once played lawn games with his children.
Arlington House belonged to General Lee’s wife, Mary Custis, who was George and Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter. Designed in the Greek Revival style by the same English architect who helped build the U.S. Capital building in 1785, the house took sixteen years to build. Its most stunning feature are the eight columns, each five feet in diameter at the base, that stand like soldiers at parade rest across the exterior portico. Before the Civil War began, Robert Edward Lee, a Colonel in the U.S. Army, used to stand on his front porch and gaze across the rolling hills and the Potomac River to the nation’s capital city. In late May of 1861, however, after Colonel Lee had accepted a command in the army of the Confederate States of America, real soldiers, in blue wool and armed with loaded rifles, stood at Order Arms across his front porch.
Lee had foreseen the certain loss of their home and written to Mary, “War is inevitable, and there is no telling when it will burst around you . . . You have to move and make arrangements to go to some point of safety which you must select. The Mount Vernon plate and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain, and in your preparations . . . May God keep and preserve you and have mercy on all our people.”
Mary dragged her feet, but her husband kept after her until, finally, she had the “servants” pack as much of their belongings as possible into wagons, shoved her daughters ahead of her into their carriage, and swept out of the drive in a hot fury. She would never see her ancestral home, nor the graves of her parents again.
Almost immediately after Mary and the children’s departure, Federal troops occupied the estate. Union Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs was in command of the garrison. He considered Lee a traitor to his country and in 1864, after three years of war and hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers dead, he wanted to punish him for it. He would turn the Lee estate into a cemetery for” the victims of the rebellion.” After surveying a tract for a military cemetery, he gave the command, “Dig,” and two soldiers sank their shovels into the rose garden.
Four years later and three years after Lee surrendered his army to General Grant, Union General John A. Logan proclaimed,
“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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.” This observance of the sacrifice of the Union dead for the preservation of the United States was to be called “Decoration Day,” and the first Decoration Day would be held at the new Arlington National Cemetery, where stood, rank upon rank, spaced with military precision, 20,000 white crosses.
Today, Arlington National Cemetery contains more than 250,000 military and civilian graves and Decoration Day has become Memorial Day, held in honor not only of our Civil War dead, but of all our war casualties. In 1968, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May and declared a national holiday.
Over the three days of the holiday weekend, ceremonies are conducted at Arlington by numerous organizations, but on Monday, the U.S. Marine band arrives and the rattling thrum of snare drums rolls across the furling, white-striped flag of the cemetery. At the full honor wreath-laying ceremony, a bass drum roll launches “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the white gloved hands of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “Old Guard” whip, row upon row, to the visors of their dress uniform caps.
The rest of us are having a party. It’s Monday and we have the day off. Fire up the barbee and ice down the beer. Haul buggy for the beach. Set out the bowls of chips and salsa for the ballgame. It’s the first day of an all-American barbeque, beach and baseball summer.
It’s okay. Because, you know, the soldiers we honor on Memorial Day used to have fun on Memorial Day, too.
In the 1890s, the little boys who would die in WWI cheered and waved their little flags along the parade route of those old codgers from the Civil War who limped slowly by, bent to wobbling canes, and then the boys ran screaming home for cherry pie and hand-churned ice cream.
In the 1920s, the little boys and girls who would die in WWII raced around yanking table cloths off the picnic tables and wreaking general havoc with firecrackers.
The little kids who would die in the following wars raced squealing through the twilights of their Memorial Days with sparklers, the lights of the sparklers weaving across all the lawns and deserts, beaches and prairies of America. The kids’ fingers were stained with ketchup then, their fingernails rimmed with mustard, their breath sour/sweet with candy.
It’s better than all right, you see, because they were absorbing the beloved traditions of their native land, the traditions and the joys of the nation that they would someday be asked, and be willing, to die for.