Memorial/Decoration Day officially became rooted in the American consciousness by Major General and then head of the fraternal organization of the Grand Army of the Republic Commander in Chief John A. Logan's General Order No. 11., which publicly conveyed that, “the 30th day 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. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit...” In fact many years prior to this declaration communities in both the North and the South had begun to hold days of commemoration and remembrance to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.
Throughout the war-torn hills and hamlets that became ravaged after the Civil War, often times the citizens in local communities, in numerous instances the women of the town, took it upon themselves to tend to the makeshift grave sites of untold to scores of fallen soldiers. One of these was Carrie McGavock, who after the horrific Battle of Franklin would erect a cemetery on the grounds of her and husband John's plantation, Carton. For 40 years she would work tirelessly to see that the cemetery of nearly 1,500 men was kept up in a manner befitting of the men who fought in that terrible battle. Robert C. Hicks illustrated this in the historical fiction account, The Widow of the South.
Others provide a contrasting view on the history of Memorial Day. David W. Blight is one of the historians who has vividly detailed what he believed to be the origins America's first Memoria /Decoration Day. As the War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Blacks in Charleston, S.C., many former slaves, would erect a cemetery on the grounds of the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a facility that had been converted into a prison for Union soldiers during the War. Due to the unsanitary conditions and disease which plagued the facility, by late April 1865 roughly 250 Union soldiers would succumb to the effects of their confinement. Viewing this calamity, nearly three dozen freemen would take it upon themselves to give these men a proper burial by cleaning the grounds, fencing off the newly cemented cemetery, and building a main entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
After completing this solemn duty, 10,000 townspeople, mostly black and Christian missionaries, many children, would lead a procession to the racetrack singing hymns and waving flowers, wreaths and other fixtures as they marched with precision. Following this the crowds dispersed and participated in picnics, watched units like the 54th Massachusetts perform drills, and heard rousing speeches commemorating the day's activities. Oddly enough, a New York Tribune writer was on hand to chronicle the entire spectacle, and to David Blight this is the first official account that came to symbolize what we refer to today as Memorial Day. Interestingly enough, it wouldn't be until May 26, 1966 that then President Lyndon Baines Johnson would sign an official Presidential Proclamation which would recognize Waterloo, New York as having the first and most continuous of the nation's Memorial Day celebrations.
One of the more remarkable tales of honoring soldiers was that of Georgia Professor and humanitarian Moina Michael. While attending the twenty-fifth conference of Overseas YMCA war secretaries on Nov. 9, 1918, Michael had an epiphany when she happened to be given a copy of John McCrae’s epic WWI poem (We Shall Not Sleep) In Flanders Field. Performing the somber duty of burying fallen soldiers following the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae would note how quickly the red poppy grew over the graves of those who had fell at the terrible battle. The poem inspired Michael so much that she would begin a campaign to have the red poppy recognized as the official symbol of remembrance for the soldiers of the War. In addition, Michael's used the advocacy of the red poppy as a source of fundraising on behalf of the veterans of the war, and by the 1920's, many national and international veterans organizations had embraced both Michael's call for the red poppy to be the official symbol of remembrance and to sustain financial support for WWI veterans and organizations dedicated to aiding and assisting veterans causes. In 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in dedication to the “Poppy Lady”, and in 1968 the State of Georgia would name a section of Highway 78 in her honor.
We can rank the Chattanooga National Cemetery as one of the most exquisite and fascinating burial places of its kind, for within its mighty caverns we can learn stories that are the true stuff of legends. According to the Army of the Cumberland's Thomas Van Horne, the Chattanooga National Cemetery is “the first permanent” National Cemetery for soldiers specifically done by military order, which was issued by that Army's commander General George H. Thomas’s General Order number 296 following the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Upon entering this sanctuary of serenity, one can gaze upon the bronze-based train mounted on granite which was erected to Andrews Raiders, who were commemorated for their heroism in commandeering the wood burning engine The General in Big Shanty, Georgia on April 12th,1862, and disrupting the communication apparatus of the Confederate Army as far as North Georgia. For this act, most of the military participants of what became known as the Great Locomotive Chase would be among the nation's first Medal of Honor Recipients.
In his book, A Path to Valor: Chattanooga Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients (2013), the preeminent Chattanooga historian E. Raymond Evans chronicles the stories of the daring raiders and other medal of honor awardees who participated in the Battles for Chattanooga. Together, Andrews Raiders and many troops who partook in the Chattanooga Campaign are among the first recipients of this great national honor, and this is also one of the reasons that the Chattanooga National Medal of Honor Museum was began and continues to fulfill its endearing mission today.
The Legend of the General is not the only story contained within Chattanooga’s National Cemetery. We can find honorably entombed there a soldier from the Revolutionary War and in fact every American war, including 78 German prisoners of War from WWI, and over 100 Prisoners of War from WWII.
The Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi estimates that there are over 880 known and unknown United States Colored Troops buried at the cemetery. Yet another Medal of Honor recipient within national cemetery was World War II conscientious objector and the focus of the book and movie Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Desmond Doss. Two members of the Fallen Five, Naval petty officer Randall Smith and Marine Sgt. David Wyatt can be found on this hallowed ground as well.
Perhaps one of the more beloved of the more than 10,000 persons buried there is National and Tennessee Radio Hall of Famer Luther Masingill, who for nearly 75 years could be heard over the air at the same the Luther Time and on the same Luther Channel (WDEF). He is the only broadcaster in American history to have covered the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
It is well that we pay respectful tribute to the memories of those who have served our nation and communities so ably and faithfully on this Memorial Day. Perhaps the poem of C.W. Johnson,“Memorial Day”, sums up this solemn occasion the best:
“We walked among the crosses, where our Fallen Soldier’s lay.
And listened to the bugle, as Taps began to play.
The Chaplin led a prayer, and we stood with heads bowed low.
And I thought of Fallen Comrades, that I had known so long ago.
They came from every City, across this fertile land.
That we might live in Freedom, they lie here beneath the sand.
I felt a little guilty, my sacrifice was small.
I only lost a little time, but they had lost their all.
Now the Services are over, for this Memorial Day.
To the names upon these crosses, I just want to say.
Thanks for what you’ve given; no one could ask for more.
May you rest with God in Heaven, from now through evermore.
May God bless our country each and every day…and may we be forever grateful for our freedom and for those who have helped make it possible…with their service and their sacrifice.”
Eric A. Atkins