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Soldiers Put Politics Aside In Service

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This column was written by National Review's W. Thomas Smith Jr.


Buried beneath a stretch of ground on a ridge above the Broad River here in Columbia, S.C., are the remains of some 140 Confederate soldiers. Though some are in unmarked graves, most are beneath neat rows of small, white tombstones. At the entrance to this relatively small section of the much larger Elmwood Cemetery is a large, wrought-iron archway that simply says, "Confederate Soldiers 1861-1865."

Nearby are ten Union Army graves — at least eight of them being soldiers of the U.S. 8th Infantry Regiment — who died during the postwar occupation of Columbia.

The Union and Confederate graves are separated by an old stone wall — the wall itself something of an unofficial monument, built to divide, thus symbolizing the simmering distrust that existed between the two regions of the country for decades after the war ended in 1865.

Beyond these two sets of graves are interred thousands of other soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines (including many more Civil War veterans and countless descendents of those Civil War veterans) from different times and future wars.

My father, a Korean War veteran, is one of them.

Point being: no matter what flags Americans have served under — or causes they have fought for — since initially choosing between the colonies and the Crown back in 1775, all are indeed Americans.

And most of them have fought less over the politics of a given conflict and more from the sheer fact that they were the ones responsible for defending the homeland or its interests abroad when politics and diplomacy had broken down.

As Lord Tennyson wrote:

Theirs not to make reply...
Theirs not to reason why...
Theirs but to do and die...
One of the oft-told stories of the American Civil War is one in which a U.S. Army officer asks a young Confederate soldier, who had just been taken prisoner by Union forces, if he (the Confederate) owned slaves. When the prisoner said no, the officer asked why he was fighting on the side of the rebellion. The Confederate matter-of-factly responded, "Because you're here."

Sounds simple, but for the Confederate soldier, taking up arms against the enemy had nothing really to do with politics or such lofty mid-19th-century issues as slavery and its abolition. It had everything to do with the fact that his country had been attacked. And if his fellow countrymen were going to shoulder weapons and march against the enemy, how could he not?

After all, as U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur said in 1815, nearly a half-century before the Civil War: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!"

Remembering Those, Right Or Wrong

We remember those soldiers and sailors — right or wrong — in various annual observances, from Veterans Day to Armed Forces Day. This week, we remember the dead. We've done so since the end of our Civil War, when annual observances began cropping up in communities across the nation. The earliest observances specifically honored those Civil War soldiers, sailors, and Marines who were killed in action or, just as likely, died of wounds or disease (most of those buried here on the ridge over the Broad River died in the nearby Confederate hospital).

Which brings us to U.S. Army Gen. John A. Logan, the man who — under the command of Gen. William T. Sherman — led an invading force into Columbia, and who has since been blamed in part for this city's burning on February 17, 1865. In what seems ironic to many South Carolinians, it was Logan who issued an order dated May 5, 1868, for the setting aside of a special day each year to honor the war's dead. The order officially established what was to become Memorial Day — in those days known as "Decoration Day." It read in part:

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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
So the man partially responsible for torching this old Confederate city, is also responsible for the flowers placed on Confederate graves every spring. Not surprisingly, white Southerners haven't always been too keen on the idea of honoring their dead on a day set aside by Logan. And separate annual Confederate Memorial Days — observed on varying days in April, May, and June (as well as a Texas Confederate Heroes Day in January) — have been observed ever since Logan's order was issued.

The Evolution Of Memorial Day

"Memorial Days began very soon after the war, and concurrently by both Northern and Southern groups," Joe Long, curator of education at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, tells National Review Online. "There's a book entitled 'Race and Reunion' that claims that the very first Memorial Day service was held by black Americans in honor of Union soldiers."

Long adds that Northern and Southern observances were organized by ladies' memorial associations. "Those early memorial services were very much driven by women."

A few weeks after Logan's order, Gen. James A. Garfield (future president of the United States) presided over the first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery (the former estate of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee), and approximately 5,000 participants decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate dead — about 20,000 of them — buried on the grounds.

Over the next 20-plus years, communities nationwide held Decoration (Memorial) Day observances. And by the end of World War I in 1918, annual services were held to honor the dead from all of America's wars.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the birthplace of Memorial Day after it was determined Waterloo held the first such service in 1866, one year after the end of the Civil War.

In 1971, Memorial Day became a congressionally mandated national holiday.

Arlington National Cemetery continues to hold the largest annual Memorial Day service. Flags are placed at each of the nearly 300,000 graves. Presidential speeches are made. And a wreath is placed at the Tomb of the Unknowns (also called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier).

As for me, I'll do what I've done on previous Memorial Days: I'll spend part of the morning strolling among the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers on this ridge here above the Broad River. I'll think about their efforts. I'll consider how much they struggled on both sides. I'll try to imagine what it must have looked like from this very ridge-top on that single night in February 1865 as my city burned, the Confederacy collapsed around my great, great grandparents, and what would become the world's most powerful "nation for good" was saved by those who were willing to risk death to save it.
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online