When it was first celebrated on May 30, 1868, Memorial Day was to honor the soldiers who died in the War Between the States. Decoration Day became a time to place flowers on the grave, to remember soldiers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and babies with graves marked by angels and a brief span of years.
People came with picnic baskets and flowers and made the family plot a pretty place; children traced the letters naming their dead ancestors and tumbled among the tombstones. Memorial Day attached people to the past and made death a part of life.
Washington is such a transient place that many residents are, of course, far from the graves of their dead. And some people have been raised to view cemeteries with superstition. One man remembers that as a child he and his sisters and brothers would hold their breath to bursting as they were driven by the block-long cemetery near their house. To breathe in was to be seized by the souls of the dead.
People like that will never be able to see a graveyard as a friendly place, nor look on tombstones as ledgers of the past. But for the rest of us, a visit to one of the area's Civil War cemeteries might be a fitting way to spend the day. Pack a picnic lunch and the children and pick up a few close, non-ghoulish friends who can entertain each other as you entertain thoughts of the past. Some ideas:
Harper's Ferry and Harper Cemetery--Not exclusively monuments to the Civil War, but it was here on the night of Oct. 16, 1859, that abolitionist John Brown seized the armory, the first move in his plan to liberate the slaves and set up a free-Negro stronghold in the mountains.
"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood," he wrote on the day he was hanged. Three years later, in September 1862, Confederate troops had seized the town and captured the Union garrison.
Take the Beltway to 270, north to Frederick, then 340 west to Harper's Ferry.
Manassas--Site of the first major battle of the Civil War July 21, 1861, the first Battle of Bull Run. Washingtonians drove out in their carriages to watch, much as football fans would later gather to cheer the home team.
By daybreak July 22, the defeated Union army was in Washington and John Brown's prediction had come true: 4,689 men had purged the land with their blood. A year later, the same site was the scene of the second battle of Manassas, with once again the South victorious.
Manassas National Battlefield Park: U.S. 66 west to Rte. 234. Picnicking allowed only in the picnic area.
Antietam--Location of the bloodiest day of the Civil War, Sept. 17, 1862, when Gen. Robert E. Lee attempted to push his way north.
At the end of the day, neither North nor South had gained a decisive victory, but over 23,000 men had been killed. The next morning Lee withdrew his army back across the Potomac River.
Antietam National Battlefield: Beltway to 270, north to Frederick, west on 70 to Alt. 40. Follow Alt. 40 to Md. Rte. 34. Turn north onto Md. 65 to the Visitor's Center. No fires allowed in picnic area.
Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park--Commemorates four battles.
The Battle of Fredericksburg, Dec. 11-13, 1862, where the Union Army failed in its attempt to dislodge Lee's forces from their position on the high ground west of the city; the battle of Chancellorsville, begun on April 27, 1863, where Lee eventually drove the Union troops back across the river but where Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot and killed by his own troops; the Battle of the Wilderness, where on May 5 and 6, Confederate and Union troops fought an indecisive battle and Grant left the field and marched toward Spotsylvania Courthouse, a battle that lasted May 8 through May 21.
Finally, on May 21, after the most intense hand-to-hand combat of the war, Grant abandoned the field. The four battles left over 100,000 casualties.
Take 95 south to Rte. 3, turning right onto Sunken Road and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor's Center for directions to the battle sites. Fires in grills permitted in the picnic area.
Gettysburg--Where the battle in 1863 was a turning point in the war. It was Lee's last attempt at a full-scale invasion of the north and it failed.
From July 1 to 3, 75,000 Confederate and 97,000 Union soldiers battled on the farmland around the town. Over 51,000 men were lost and a few months later, on Nov. 19, President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery and honor "the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here."
Take the Beltway to 270, picking up 15 north at Frederick. Take 15 business route into Gettysburg. Visitor's Center is on 134, across from the national cemetery.