Decoration Day 2023

Americans have done a great disservice to the valorous who fought and sacrificed for the Union cause during the Civil War. By renaming it Memorial Day then amalgamating all who’ve fallen in each of our nation’s armed conflicts, Decoration Day, consecrated and commemorated on May 30th, has been robbed of its purpose.

Like Armistice Day. November 11th signifies the emergence of the United States as the 20th century’s preeminent global power. The true start of the American Century.

A date upon which Henry Luce and Walter Lippmann might’ve seamlessly agreed.

Also about Armistice Day, Americans ought have followed Britain’s model. Despite the severe costs exacted by the Second World War, the sacrifices of the Great War maintain a particular hold on England’s soul. One might think V-E Day commemorations would surpass those of the First World War. Instead it remains the other way around.

Which is surprising because as the Duke of Wellington might’ve commented by comparison, “The First World War was nowhere near as a close-run thing as the Second.”

Even today with every combatant and participant of the first conflict dead, Britons still pause on the closest Sunday to November 11th to reflect on the carnage which bled their nation white. The locus of attention is in London at the Cenotaph, a memorial symbolizing the resolve Britain paid in blood.

In 1946, Britons rededicated the Cenotaph. By this gesture they extended recognition to their World War II dead. Nonetheless the ceremony’s pageantry may always accentuate those who perished on Flanders fields. Poppies take prominence.

Americans needed to have selected another day to recognize all the other combatants who’ve died – who will die – on our behalf. May 30th ought have been kept sacred for the Federal dead of the Civil War. They did more than defend our nation. The Blue Coats preserved our Union.

However, I suspect revanchist Southerners promoted the inclusive “Memorial Day” in order to bring their traitorous ancestors into the fold of the honored; while “Veterans Day,” formerly Armistice Day, is easier for us to grasp than the end of the Great War whose result catapulted America out of its provincialism and isolationism.

“Provincialism” and “isolationism,” together two attributes which produced the wrongly lauded and believed virtuous beyond its time “American innocence.” More like “American ignorance.” The more retrograde among us strain harder to reestablish this backwardness than pharaohs’ Israelite slaves ever toiled while erecting the pyramids.

Two versions complete for Decoration Day’s origins. The first, groups of Grand Army of the Republic veterans honored comrades lost during mid-19th century Between the States epoch. They cleaned and garlanded absent friends’ graves. Of course, the old soldiers realized early their voices and numbers carried strength. Therefore, they lobbied Congress to transform this into a national holiday.

Yes. But that’s too cut and dry. Bloodless, almost.

I prefer the second version. It’s more American.

Postwar, freedmen were grateful for their deliverance from bondage. A depth of gratitude we will never know. While an immense amount of prayer was involved, Yankees shedding their blood for black lives made it happen. To honor those “gunmen,” the ex-slaves, like the GAR veterans, not only tidied graves, but also communed with the dead by holding picnics at the plots.

Though a habit unfamiliar to vast America, where after funereal ceremonies we scurry away with the wind, other cultures spend time with lost loved ones. The best example of this in our part of North America would be Dia de la Muerte. The Mexican Day of the Day. It follows Halloween. During it relatives and friends devote offerings to the beloved deceased.

Doubtless much of Anglo America finds this tradition macabre. Nonetheless this does in its manner strengthen spectral/earthly connections by maintaining familial continuity. Though gone the spirits of the dead circulate among the living.

While nowhere near as imbued between the two planes as Mexicans, half of my lineage shares aspects of it. Especially now that all but one of my oldest relatives have gone onto their rewards.

Only a single aunt remains from my parents’ extended lines. Unlike today when large families are anomalies, mother and father were counted among big broods.

Reared in the impoverished rural South of the early to mid-20 century as they were, their presences were needed to raise, dress, plant and harvest much of what sustained them. Also, a grimmer reality. Black infant mortality was high during that era. As it remains today. Whether my grandparents and their parents accepted this fact consciously or instinctively, whether they could articulate this contingency or not, here was the natural replacement method practiced.

I recall this explicitly because when father died in 2005, the obituary I’d written for him startled his youngest brother. Listed in the predeceased were two sisters who’d succumbed before his birth. The uncle had forgotten they’d ever existed. Their absence explains an eight-year gap between father and his eldest brother. It was probably the first time Catherine and Wyola had been recognized in almost 90 years.

That youngest brother, my last uncle, died a bit over year ago. His estate still held nearly 38 acres of the 40 presented to freedmen after the Civil War. South Carolina purchased two acres for a road. Highway asphalt cut through our property. The acreage was the patrimony which sustained father’s family. Even after their parents had died, and each adult child migrated north, that land remained ours. The surviving sons and daughter leased out the property. They must have. Would fallow ground have demanded the taxes it fetched?

In the mid-1980s mother and I traveled to that part of coastal South Carolina. One, to visit paternal relatives. Two, to see where father had grown up. His upbringing was comparative luxury to my maternal side’s.

Not only did father’s side have land, the household’s head also worked for the railroad. Therefore, they didn’t depend on Anglo “benevolence” to the same extent as most of the region’s blacks.

As did my maternal line.

Until dispossession, until finally abandoning the South, they were sharecroppers.

Several weeks ago, I finally broached that past with mother’s surviving sister. Oddly, I never felt any need to investigate that part of their history. Unlike father’s side, all tight-lipped unless directly confronted about such, mother’s side freely and frequently revived their Piedmont past among themselves. They maintained an oral tradition. Passively, one learned our heritage through listening; about incidents long past, relative long dead. Thanks to vocal inflections the recollections, reactions gleaned then volleyed, these were far more colorful and emotive than what might’ve been revealed on paper or screen.

One can still hear them conversing. Probably why those moments have fixed so deeply into memory.

Settling my uncle’s estate prompted the questions to my aunt. She spoke angrily about one of the few subjects her side of the family had clearly avoided.

Sharecroppers, they tilled land for another. Other than the youngest daughters, the older members of mother’s family knew stoop labor painfully well. Making this more arduous, the landowner was a cracker.

Readers can’t imagine the pleasure it gives to describe him as such. Had it been done on social media, someone, probably a relative of a cracker who resented his or her relation being labeled just that, would’ve bitched to some unformed proctor about the “slur.” And of course, in our hypersensitive times where plain English is frowned upon, facts and truth often take backseats to feelings. Especially when either or both are absolutely apt.

Upon the landowner’s recollection, my aunt knew hell his reward. Not hoped. Knew with vivid vehement certitude. She expected he spent his eternity in the sulphureous depths tightly tied to a spit that slowly turned above licking flames, the devil’s minions ceaselessly poking his white hide with pitchforks.

Indeed, we enjoyed righteous cackles over her imagery.

I find little good about Karl Marx. But give him credit. He was right about owning the means of production. And by extension distribution. Without him my expression may have been fettered. But since I’m master of this platform, a cracker is who the landowner was.

Yes, that man was harsh and exploitive. The kind who probably would’ve sworn himself so wonderful a Christian as to have sat on the right side of Jesus. Hard as his laborers needed to have worked for him, the cracker found their exertions insufficient. One can only imagine the profits he reaped from their aches and sweat. It is unnecessary to consider what they received because he habitually shorted them. Which worsened once my maternal grandfather died shortly before the war ended.

Only the conflagration’s exigencies kept mother’s family working that loam. Most men having departed to serve, planting and harvests depended more than ever on women and children. And they produced.

None of that mattered postwar. The cracker must’ve decided his time right to take advantage of a family without a male heading it. He devised some scheme that would’ve further reduced payments.

Let’s hope he was astonished then enraged when my then widowed grandmother Alice respectfully and humbly as possible demonstrated he go fuck himself by declining his offer. Rather than work harder for less, mother’s family did not tarry when ordered to leave. On one hand, they forfeited a kind of sinecure. A roof over themselves. Steady meals. Constant belittlement. Arbitrariness. At the time these were abandoned for who knew what? Yet on the other, they retained their dignity. And then as now this is powerful.

In time they moved nearer to Columbia. After too many menial years in and around the state capitol, the North drew mother then her brothers. Through contacts who had earlier blazed paths into a more prosperous land, each found work paying higher than subsistence wages. So much so they could send money South. These remittances helped support and improve the lives of those who remained in Dixie until they too migrated northward.

Here is the biggest difference between my parental branches.

What passed for financial stability during the 1910s through the Depression must’ve bestowed father’s family with senses of security. Certainly, it established a kind of distance. Their Canaan was different than mother’s. The former’s branch seldom spoke about its Southern lifetimes. And when they did it was mostly innocuous. Hunting. Maybe fishing. Or about a particularly stubborn mule. Little to indicate what formed them.

The one time that wall cracked, and this instant lasting less than the blink of an eye, concerned a relative’s fatal prognosis. As father and his brothers discussed it, he segued into mentioning that had their mother Julia received better medical care her life expectancy would’ve been longer. Into the 1960s, so long enough for her to have likely met this grandson.

The quiet contemplation among the brothers was sharp though short. Then time, focus, and conversation moved on.

Like mother’s family, father’s retained memories. It would’ve been inhuman for them not to have. Unlike mother’s side, though, father’s shunned revisiting the unpleasant. And after those necessary occasions, they didn’t linger.