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Of Memorial Days past


I grew up in rural Georgia in the Fifties and Sixties. I grew up with ghosts in the closet.

Old family Southerners could rattle off what company, regiment, corps, and army of the Provisional Army of the Confederate States their ancestors had served in. About a third of all the men who served in combat units of the PACS were killed. Some families had the luxury of knowing where their ancestor was buried. Some of the soldiers even lay in a marked grave.  

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It was March 4, 1862. Ten members of the maternal side of my family — fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, uncles — answered Georgia’s call for a militia muster at which they were “invited to volunteer or then and there be drafted by the State of Georgia” for service in the provisional army.   

By April 26, 1865, the day the last Confederate force east of the Mississippi surrendered, three of them were still alive. The other seven lie in unmarked graves somewhere in Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania.

Also on March 4, 1862, a fraternal great-great-grandfather answered a prior militia muster.   He was a teacher and a successful small planter.  He was fairly political and pretty well connected, but as it turned out, not well connected enough.  

Opposed to secession, and fairly activist about his opposition, he pulled every string he could to get out of being forced into the army, but failed. He duly reported and “volunteered.”   

He either became ill or was wounded in the Seven Days Battles in 1862 and connected with the Confederate hospital system.  Because he was an educated man, his connection there put him on lots of administrative details into the field hospitals.   

I was doing some research and connected with a guy who had an authorization for 30 days recovery leave and subsistence document signed by my great-great grandfather, who ran out of luck and connections in the spring of 1864. I have a lot of his letters home during that time. He had wanted to buy a substitute and clearly had the money, which required about $10,000 in confederate dollars at that time. I don’t have my great-great grandmother’s letters to him, letters from home to a soldier are extraordinarily rare, but it was clear that she was having none of her man “lying abed” while others were still in the ranks.

He returned to the ranks in time for The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the siege of Richmond/Petersburg, and was then killed in action, probably by friendly artillery fire, in General Mahone’s confederate counterattack at the Battle of The Crater.   

We don’t know where he is buried, but the best surmise is in the mass grave of soldiers thought to be Georgians at the cemetery at Blandford Church in Petersburg, Virginia.  I have a copy of the incredibly cold letter from his lieutenant to my great-great grandmother, informing her of his death; by that time there’s been a lot of dying.   

A neighbor came home on leave some time later and brought some of my great-great grandfather’s personal effects. I have the blood-stained testament that was in his breast pocket when he was killed. We also have the home-made quilt that had been his bedroll, but along the way, we’ve lost track of which among the old family quilts was his.

There’d long been a tradition in America of organizing the cleaning and decoration of family cemeteries. Families and communities got together and made a “dinner on the grounds” event of cleaning up the cemeteries and placing flowers on the graves. The Civil War produced a lot of fresh graves.

Some families had the wherewithal to retrieve the body of their dead son or father, but most didn’t; many soldiers of both sides were buried hastily, sloppily, and often corruptly in mass graves or in better circumstances in individual graves simply marked as “Unknown.”   

The military issued “dog tag” was almost unknown at that time. A few soldiers could afford to have some sort of ID pendant made, while others scrawled their name and address on a piece of paper and pinned it to their jacket; most were just “unknown.” Since the contractors were being paid by the body, there wasn’t a lot of distinction between dead horses and dead men. Many weren’t buried until long after the war.   

The 1864 Battle of the Wilderness was fought on the same ground as the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville, and The Wilderness was fought literally on the unburied bodies from Chancellorsville the year before. The Wilderness was as close to a vision of Hell as one might want, as the gunfire set fire to the heavily wooded area and burned long dead and freshly wounded alike.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was delivered for the dedication of a National Cemetery at the site of the battlefield. In the South, the endeavor to honor the graves was almost entirely private. The best documented, if not necessarily the first, formal event was in Savannah, Georgia to honor the graves of Georgians killed at First Manassas — or in Yankee parlance, the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place in 1862.

The North took up the practice both with the dedication of National Cemeteries and commemoration of private gravesites. In an act of spite or vengeance because of the death of his son in battle, the U.S. Quartermaster in charge of Union burials in the Washington area ordered that Union soldiers be buried on the grounds of General Robert E. Lee’s estate at Arlington. We know it today as Arlington National Cemetery. They don’t much teach that piece of history in school.

After the War, civic organizations arose in both the North and South. The predominant organization in The North was the Grand Army of the Republic. In The South there was the United Confederate Veterans, and later and still today the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but in The South the various women’s groups were much more effective and most of those monuments being torn down today were bought and installed by the work of the mothers, widows, and orphans of dead confederate soldiers.

In The North, many states established Decoration Day as a state holiday on May 30.  It is said that the date was chosen because there was no battle on that day. In The South there were various state holidays but by the early 20 th Century most Southern states had settled on April 26, the date of Johnson’s surrender to Sherman of the last major Confederate field army.   

When I was a youngster, April 26 was a state holiday in Georgia, while the Northern Decoration Day was little noted. In those days there were still plenty of folks who’d turn their back to the playing of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” because they well know whose vineyards the Yankees were bragging about trampling.

The South remained a separate country in all but name through most of the remainder of the 19th Century.  We can talk about carpetbaggers and scalawags and rapacious banks and corporations, but that is for another piece. 

The U.S. needed safe passage through the former Confederate States for prosecution of the Spanish American War, and the former Confederate States still weren’t particularly enamored with the United States. The U.S. even dredged up a former Confederate Cavalry general to command troops in the attack on Cuba. They picked Joe Wheeler, who commanded a small cavalry unit in Georgia that fired a few shots for their manhood against Sherman’s massive army. Southerners didn’t offer any opposition to U.S. mobilization, but neither was there any outpouring of Southern support.

The U.S. imposed conscription on all male citizens for World War I. Again, the South offered little opposition, although though many Southerners were not qualified for service because of health and education considerations.   My grandfather was drafted and seriously injured in a gas training accident and spent the rest of his foreshortened life with serious respiratory problems.

By World War II, The South was somewhat a part of the United States. It was still poor, ignorant, segregated, and xenophobic, but it was beginning to have paved roads. FDR liked to hang out in Warm Springs, Georgia, and the Central of Georgia Railroad could luxuriously take him there. By then, Southern volunteers and draftees served proudly in the U.S. military.   Whether the issue is The South or the largely Northern immigrant population, World War II was the “melting pot” that made modern America before, the “diversity” types took it all apart.

Fast forward to the Cold War and Vietnam; the military had become heavily Southern. Especially during Vietnam, the draft hit the working class boys of The South a whole bunch harder than it hit the Ivy League preppies of The North.   

Which brings us to the modern Memorial Day.

Along the way, the U.S. had agreed to provide grave stones to Confederate soldiers’ graves and give some recognition to them as legitimate combatants. Only the dedicated hardasses still wanted to execute Southerners for treason; don’t you think they would have done it in 1865 if they thought they could?

President Nixon finally offered reconciliation in 1971. He combined the old Confederate States Memorial Days and the Northern Decoration days into a Federal Holiday, Memorial Day. 

If it weren’t for COVID-19 we could be doing beaches, barbeques, and beer for three days. 

Maybe we can pause for a moment to consider the men who bled and died to give us our beaches, burgers, and beer.



  1. Thank you Art and MRA. I appreciate the historical background to Memorial Day! Certainly a history our ‘educators’ have chosen to pass over.

  2. Art, that was an extremely well written and heartfelt article drawing from family history only legitimizes it even more. We should all bee extremely grateful to those who gave all and should not squander the freedom and rights they died for. Thank You

  3. A great injustice to hear of those war memorials being taken down in the south, especially considering who paid for their installation.

  4. Art Chance, you are a true gift to people who can read. We are so fortunate to have you in Alaska.

  5. My husband’s mother was from Georgia and his dad’s family from Alabama/Arkansas. Dan will pull out his SCV card and tell people that it’s his bonafide “redneck” card. He got invited to a meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans years ago and wanted me to attend. I was a little reluctant thinking it might be a roomful of men with white hoods. To my surprise, it was nothing like that. I would say the majority fell into two categories: the Genealogy buffs who were looking up their family history OR the war buffs who could tell you about this ridge and this river and how many troops were here and how many there, etc. I couldn’t believe how much history they knew about each battle and comments about, well that was a dumb move by the south or the northerners here did this wrong. They analysed moves by the Generals/leaders on each side. There was no racism or white supremacy garbage at all. As a “Yankee”raised in the north (but with good balanced teachers, thank goodness!) I was very impressed. Not all southerners had horns and certainly not all northerners had halos. My biggest argument is that between 1750 and 1870 more than 50 countries got rid of slavery but we were the only ones who killed 3/4 million of our own people (plus the thousands who starved after the war) to accomplish it. Such an unecessary waste of life!

  6. Great article Art…………”I am……American by birth, Southern by the grace of God”!

  7. Art, thanks for the wonderful story of your heritage. I can support your thoughts re many of those in the US Military during the Cold War and Vietnam were from the South. During my time, I found that most US Service members were either from the South or the small towns of America. I also found that the Southerners were very well informed about the Civil War and its battles/leaders. Thanks again and have a great Memorial Day. Never forget.

  8. Would it be accurate to say there are structures in the eastern US built upon unmarked graves or buried bodies?
    Totally enjoy your writings, Art. You are a national treasure!

    • It would be accurate to say that, but it shouldn’t be overstated. There were skirmishes and peripheral fights and men died where they laid, and were buried or not by their compatriots. There are a lot of dead bodies laying around in the World. I can remember when spring in Anchorage brought up bodies like skunk cabbage.

      It wasn’t a neat or particularly accurate process but both the US and CS tried within their means to give a Christian burial to all the dead. There are still a lot of “Missing” men from America’s 20th Century wars, though with modern DNA technology not so many, but most of the “Missing” comes from people not wanting to understand what modern weapons do to human bodies.

      Most of the casualties at The Crater were from the Confederate artillery batteries near the point of attack. They were close and were firing canister shot. Canister is about a 1″ diameter lead ball fired from a 3″ cannon used like a large shotgun, dozens of rounds just fired in the general direction. There wasn’t much left of a man caught by a round of canister. I suspect the reason my gg/grandfather lies in an unmarked grave is that there really wasn’t enough left to identify.

      The Crater was such a confused battle that there really weren’t any organized lines and the US and CS troops were intermixed. The US troops attacked screaming “No Quarter,” and the Confederates were happy to oblige, especially with the USCT.

  9. “Maybe we can pause for a moment to consider the men who bled and died to give us our beaches, burgers, and beer.”
    For some reason just about every year when I read articles about Memorial Day I have to remind people that Memorial Day is for remembering the war dead. Memorial Day isn’t Veterans Day, or Fireman’s Day, or Mother’s Day, or Nurse’s Day. This is the first time in a long, long time that I can remember reading an article about Memorial Day that I didn’t feel the need to point out what Memorial Day is about, your final sentence seals it. Great article Art.

  10. Well said, Art. I had no idea that Arlington National Cemetery was once property of the Robert E. Lee family. I’ve not yet been to the deep South. Maybe I will go see it for myself one day. However, years ago while working as a young staffer in DC, I ventured up to the battlefield at Antiteim. 24,000 men from both sides died there, fighting each other in the giant cornfields. I stumbled across an old piece of lead from a flintlock. Some poor soul met his fate where I stood. It didn’t matter to me which side he fought for. He fought for his country.

    • Sept. 17, 1862, was the single bloodiest day in American history; many more men were killed and wounded at Antietam/Sharpsburg than on D-Day. There may have been a few flintlocks there; at that early period some men were still carrying private arms, particularly in Southern units. Most men were armed with percussion cap muskets or rifles. The 1842 Springfield smoothbore musket in .69 caliber was very common on both sides, but many men were equipped with .58 caliber Springfield rifled muskets in Northern units and many Southern units were equipped with British .57 caliber Enfield rifled muskets. The range and accuracy of the Springfield and Enfield rifled muskets rendered the Napoleonic tactics to which the officers of both sides had been trained, those who had been trained at all, completely obsolete, and the slaughter was appalling.

      The US would only let Gen. Lee pay the property taxes on Arlington in person, so they took the estate for unpaid taxes. The house was thoroughly looted and vandalized, but at least the Yankees didn’t engage in their favorite sport of burning the houses of prominent Southerners.

      • Addendum: I’ve been to most of the major battlefields. The one that made the deepest impression on me was Fredricksburg. I stood behind that stone wall on Marye’s Hill and could envision those Yankee troops advancing like myrmidons up that hill and being mowed down. Longstreet’s artillery commander had assured him that a chicken could not cross his field of fire and live; he was right. Between the concentrated musketry and the artillery, the Yankee advance on Marye’s Hill was at best a forlorn hope. I could almost find it in my heart to feel sorry for them.

        • I to visited many of those battlefields and stood behind the rock wall on Marye’s ridge and wondered at the stupidity of Burnside. Also was saddened when I learned of the stories of the clash of the Union and Confederate Irish Brigades

          • The Union Irish Brigade purposely chose the ’42 Springfield smoothbore musket and loaded it with “buck and ball” because in that configuration it was a cross between a musket and a 10 ga. shotgun, and very effective at close quarters. The downside is that it was only accurate to at most 50 or 75 yards, less if fired on the move and under fire.

            There wasn’t really an Irish full brigade, ten regiments, on the CS side but there were a couple of companies raised from Savannah, GA that were largely Irish. They like most of Lee’s troops by that time had either 1861 Springfield or P1858 Enfield rifled muskets firing minie balls which were accurate out to as much as 300 yards, more in the hands of a skilled sharpshooter. The Confederates also had multiple men behind the men in the firing positions on the wall who were reloading for the men in front. They could put up a formidable musketry from very long distance and the advancing union troops could only reply if they lived long enough to get into close quarters; few did. The stories of the night after the battle are horrendous.

        • Art, thanks for the follow-up. The NPS runs museums at most of the battle sites and I encourage anyone interested, to go visit. It is a very sombering experience to see where Americans went head to head during the Civil War. It’s a moving reflection on how our country has evolved. On a technical matter: most of the small arm weaponry that you have described above were not very accurate beyond 150 feet. The sink rate upon discharge is considerable for a non-streamlined projectile. This means close quarters combat. Do you know the effective distance between infantry combatants? Also, please suggest the two or three best films that deal with the Civil War thematic. Thanks. Keep up your great writing for MRAK.

          • Fifty to 100 yards was the limit of the effective range of a smoothbore musket firing a round ball, the most common of which was the 1842 Springfield musket in common use by both armies. The famed US Irish Brigade chose to use the ’42 and load it with “buck and ball” so it could be used like a large shotgun in close quarters combat. They worked great damage with those at The Bloody Lane at Sharpsburg but paid a heavy price when they came against troops with rifled muskets on Marye’s Hill at Fredricksburg.

            The Confederates had held every battlefield before Sharpsburg and had a very effective “salvage” operation, so they had stacks of union weapons, especially ’61 Springfield rifled muskets in addition to the P1853 Enfields that both the CS government and the CS states had imported for their troops.

            The Springfield and Enfield are roughly equivalent weapons though parts for Springfields are more interchangeable than for Enfields. The Enfield was actually designed by Springfield gunsmiths that the British enticed away.

            Both were accurate out to 300 yards in the hands of a man with any training, and all CW troops did when they weren’t on campaign was drill 12 hours a day. In the hands of a skilled sharpshooter, but were accurate at much longer ranges. The Confederates used skirmisher/sharpshooter companies as pickets and expressly attacked US artillery positions at fairly long ranges to disable the men, horses, and even the guns themselves. If you’ve ever seen a gun that actually saw combat service they look like they’ve had smallpox from all the strikes from minie balls

            The training standard was three aimed rounds per minute. I spent some time at the range in Juneau with my Euroarms P1853 Enfield reproduction, which isn’t perfect but is pretty accurate. With the help of training videos and a lot of practice I became able to “load and fire in nine times” three rounds per minute, but I wasn’t on the move and nobody was shooting at me. The real deterent to accurate infantry fire was the fact that they used large, heavy, slow-firing weapons; with bayonet fixed both weigh over ten pounds.

            As to movies, “Gettysburg,” based on Jeff Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Killer Angels” is the gold standard. You can nitpick if you know how to pick nits, but the criticism is mostly nitpicking unless you hang out with very serious students of The War. Next is Jeff’s son Michael Shaara’s “Gods and Generals,” which is something of a prequel to “G’burg,” and focusses on the Battle of Fredricksburg. To a CW researcher, G&G is in many ways the better movie, but it doesn’t have the scale of G’burg. It does, however, commit the unpardonable sin of making Lee, Jackson, et al. look like something other than racist monsters, so political correctness dissuaded Turner from make the third Shaara book, “Last Full Measure” into a movie, but it is well worth the read. Beyond that, you’re hard pressed to find a good movie in historical accuracy terms, but for theme and ambiance, “Cold Mountain” is good, and all too accurate about the CS homefront, and “Gone With the Wind,” though mostly legend is an enduring perennial that at least captures accurately Southern perceptions if not the reality of life in The South of the time.

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