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Memorial Day: For the Union Dead

Burial ground for Union soldiers who died at Andersonville Prison

Burial ground for Union soldiers who died at Andersonville Prison

Memorial Day

was first observed in 1865 as Decoration Day by liberated slaves, who independently set up, decorated and proclaimed an ad-hoc graveyard – a field of “passionless mounds” – to honor dead Union soldiers.

In 1868, General John A. Logan issued the original order for Memorial Day.

Learning about the history of Memorial Day put me in mind of a poem by Robert Lowell, who was a conscientious objector during World War II and did time in federal prison for resisting the draft. Later, he was involved in the Civil Rights movement and the antiwar movement during the 1960s. He was arrested at the famous peace march that surrounded the Pentagon in October, 1967. This protest is described in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

For the Union Dead

Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam.

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the crowded, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is a lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic

The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…

Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!- a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

Robert Lowell

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19 Responses

  1. I love Robert Lowell’s poetry. I haven’t read it in years.

  2. Yikes! North Korea has conducted a nuclear test.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=acEawzZgNFk4&refer=home

    Will Obama get a 3AM call?

  3. One of the most interesting things I found out about Memorial Day here in the South is that it is considered a Yankee holiday. The states and local governments don’t recognize it and don’t give the day off. The only folks who get to take this as a holiday are Federal Employees. I was amazed when I experienced this because I was always used to Memorial Day or Decoration day being a big thing in the heartland. We used to go to Kansas City or some of the surrounding farm communities where family members were buried and make sure all the graves, especially those of our relatives that died in one of the wars, were cleaned up and taken care of … you would take this huge picnic basket and spend the day cleaning up the cemeteries. (One of my families had this huge monument in the middle, a portion had been taken down by a twister– in Kansas– and had huge peony bushes every where that always needed beating back. Of course, since then, most of the planters and seats were stolen and now most cemeteries don’t want anything they can’t plow over with a tractor. My family did this for years. But no one down here even recognizes Memorial day as a holiday. You name the small town cemetery in Kansas or Missouri and I’ve probably spent a memorial day there as a kid picnicking on graves. But no Memorial day celebrations here in the South. This is especially true for Mississippi who almost go out of their way to deny it’s happening other places. You’re more likely down here to get Good Friday off than Memorial Day.

    Somethings persist despite the passage of time …

    • That’s fascinating. Here in New England, Memorial Day is one of the most important holidays. Until recently it was one of three holidays when liquor stores had to close (along with Christmas and New Year’s). There is a real tradition here of laying flowers on graves–more so than in other places I’ve lived. Perhaps that is a tradition passed down from the Civil War too.

    • When I moved to North Carolina (grew up in central Kansas) and started my first job here I also found out it was a Yankee holiday and did not get the day off. This was back in the mid-80s and most locals were very nasty about the holiday.

      At least now the banks are closed and more people do get this as a holiday.

      BTW – do they have $50 bills where you live?

      • Yes, but many Southerners, especially in Georgia, pass them face down.

        • That’s so funny. I had to google to see whose face is on the $50.00 bill. I had forgotten. I haven’t seen one in awhile.

    • Absolutely. Most Southern states still have Day of Rememberance, or Confederate Memorial Day, on the roster of state holidays. The usual date is April 26, but some states observe this as late as May or even June. The families go out, even today, to mark the graves of the Confederate dead, as many fell far from home and family. The Yankee Memorial Day is known down here as Decoration Day, and everyone else’s graves are decorated.

      • I guess when you think about it, the Civil War was only a few generations ago.

        • Around here, we have holidays from the Revolution: Bunker HIll Day and Patriots’ Day (day of the shot heard round the world)

        • Absolutely. My great-grandmother, whom I remember, was a child during the War and had deeply ingrained, none-too-fond memories of Sherman and his troops.

        • Isn’t Patriots’ Day when the Marathon takes place?

        • I know some of my mothers’ ancestors fought in the Civil War. I wonder if my great grandparents were kids that long ago? Maybe more like great great grandparents. My grandfather was born in 1900. I looked up some of my relatives when Ancestry.com gave free access to military records a couple of years ago, and quite a few were in the Union Army.

  4. Chatblu,

    Yes, the Boston Marathon is on Patriots’ Day, but the holiday is for the first shots of the American Revolution in Lexington and Concord.

  5. My grandparents were born in 1888-1892. Their gradparents, my great-greats, served in the War. Mother’s family fought for the South, save for one of the West Virginians. My great grandmother was born in 1859 and remembered quite clearly the soldiers taking the food and the horses, and remembered the fires as well. Dad’s family was just emigrating from the Maritimes to Lawrence/Andover at the time and a few saw service in Federal blue. Like many, I can lay claim to both blue and grey.

  6. I just asked my mom, and she thinks her grandparents could have been kids in the Civil War. We’ll have to look up some dates and figure it out. My maternal grandfather’s family was from Maine. A bunch of them fought in the Civil War and then headed for Minnesota and North Dakota to get land grants. My father’s mother was from North Adams, MA. She was sent out to the wilds of North Dakota to start an office for the Insurance company she worked for. She was born in the 1800s.

    • The research is fun. Mother has a Louisiana branch that was the very dickens to trace through the Cajun country. Fortunately, Fr., Herbert did a great deal of research on the families and documented their geneology or between the remoteness of the bayous and the spellings I would have been completely treed.

      • It is fun. I wish I had more time to spend on it. If I get a decent job next year, maybe I can join genealogy.com and do some serious research.

  7. I’ve lived in Georgia most of my 48 years and we most certainly do recognize Memorial Day. Schools were out, local city, county and state business offices were closed, utilities offices were closed, libraries were closed, the county recreation center was closed (too bad for those kids out of school). The annual service was held as usual at the VFW Memorial Park. I’ve never heard of Decorations Day.

    I am only vaguely aware of Confederate Day (it doesn’t get a write up in the paper), but since Confederate soldiers graves are not generally with the Veterans of Foreign Wars graves, I believe some families of Confederate soldiers choose that day to tend the graves and remember their family members who died. Confederate Day goes unnoticed by most people unless they have a family member who died during the civil war. If I hadn’t read here that it is April 26, I wouldn’t have known.

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