The first Memorial Day — then called Decoration Day — was celebrated May 30, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War to honor the Union dead. Compared to a national population of 31.4 million in 1860, the Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate, are now roughly estimated at 750,000 and possibly more.
After World War I, the holiday commemorated all U.S. war dead. In 1971, Memorial Day became an official national holiday. “Historical Statistics of the United States (Millennial Edition)” lists war dead by conflicts as follows: the Revolutionary War, 4,435; the War of 1812, 2,260; the Mexican War, 13,283; the Spanish-American War, 2,446; World War I, 116,516; World War II, 405,399; the Korean War, 36,576; the Vietnam War, 58,200; the Persian Gulf War, 382. In addition, the Pentagon reports 6,809 deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and related combat zones as of May 22.
War mixes horror and heroism. More fitting than any Memorial Day commentary I could write is this description of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to Ulysses S. Grant. It comes from Princeton historian James McPherson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Civil War, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
The terms [Grant offered] were generous: officers and men could go home “not to be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.” This clause had great significance. . . . It guaranteed Southern soldiers immunity from prosecution for treason. Lee asked another favor. In the Confederate army, he explained, enlisted men in the cavalry and artillery owned their horses; could they keep them? Yes, said Grant; privates as well as officers who claimed to own horses could take them home “to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter.” “This will have the best possible effect upon the men,” said Lee, and “will do much toward conciliating our people.” After signing the papers, Grant introduced Lee to his staff. As he shook hands with Grant’s military secretary Ely Parker, a Seneca Indian, Lee stared a moment at Parker’s dark features and said, “I am glad to see one real American here.” Parker responded, “We are all Americans.”
The surrender completed, the two generals saluted somberly and parted. “This will live in history,” said one of Grant’s aides. But the Union commander seemed distracted. Having given birth to a reunited nation, he experienced a post-partum melancholy. “I felt . . . sad and depressed,” Grant wrote, “at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought.” As news of the surrender spread through Union camps, batteries began firing joyful salutes until Grant ordered them stopped. “The war is over,” he said; “the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations.” To help bring those former rebels back into the Union, Grant sent three days’ rations for 25,000 men across the lines. This perhaps did something to ease the psychological as well as physical pain of Lee’s soldiers.
So did an important symbolic gesture at a formal ceremony three days later when Confederate troops marched up to stack arms and surrender their flags. As they came, many among them shared the sentiments of one officer: “Was this to be the end of all our marching and fighting for the past four years? I could not keep back the tears.” The Union officer in charge of the surrender ceremony was Joshua L. Chamberlain, the fighting professor from Bowdoin who won a medal of honor for Little Round Top [a crucial engagement at Gettysburg], had been twice wounded since then, and was now a major general. Leading the Southerners as they marched toward two of Chamberlain’s brigades standing at attention was John B. Gordon, one of Lee’s hardest fighters who now commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old corps. First in line of march behind him was the Stonewall Brigade, five regiments containing 210 ragged survivors of four years of war. As Gordon approached at the head of these men with “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance,” Chamberlain gave a brief order, and a bugle call rang out. Instantly the Union soldiers shifted from order arms to carry arms, the salute of honor. Hearing the sound General Gordon looked up in surprise, and with sudden realization turned smartly to Chamberlain, dropped his sword in salute, and ordered his own men to carry arms.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.