The First Memorial Day


My Own True Love and I just got home from a Memorial Day service in Grant Park.  It was held at the foot of a statue commemorating General John A.Logan. Before today, Logan on horseback was just another obscure Civil War statue. One I hadn't paid much attention to.

Never again.

Like most Memorial Day services, whether the day is cold and rainy like today or blazing with the first heat of summer, the ceremony was moving. A young Marine captain, veteran of the Iraq war, reminded us that Memorial Day is not Veteran's Day--that the purpose is not to thank the living* but to honor the dead. A woman who left Vietnam as a toddler at the end of the Vietnam War played an achingly beautiful version of Taps. I was not the only person who cried.

We always attend a Memorial Day service if we can. We chose the service in Grant Park by chance. It turns out that celebrating Memorial Day at General Logan's feet is particularly appropriate. Logan was a Civil War general, a congressman and senator from Illinois, and an unsuccessful candidate for Vice-President. In his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, he was also one of the principal founders of Memorial Day.

On May 5, 1868, Logan issued GAR General Order 11,  establishing the first Memorial Day:

I. 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.

We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foe? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude,--the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.

II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.

With the exception of the jabs at the Confederacy, I couldn't say it better myself.

Remember the fallen.  Thank the living.  Pray for peace.


* Though I urge you to thank, or hug, a veteran while you're thinking about it.

Road Trip Through History: The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Recently My Own True Love and I took a week-long road trip that looped down the Mississippi, across to Little Rock, through northwest Arkansas, up to Kansas City and back to Chicago.  For much of the trip, historical sightseeing was out of the question. All we could do was make lists of sites and museums that we'd like to see next time.  After all, we had miles to travel, people to see, meetings to attend, a blogging workshop to teach. *  When we reached Kansas City, our time was our own and we were ready to be history nerds.  Our first stop was the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. (Okay, it's in Independence, Missouri, but the two cities have run together into an amorphous urban blob.)

The library tells Truman's story well in a variety of formats: a 45 minute documentary of Truman's life using vintage black and white footage and stills, a family friendly interactive display about his life from childhood through retirement, an excellent and even-handed display setting his often controversial presidency in historical context***, and a charming display of his letters to Bess. (Not every presidential library has a lifelong love story at its heart.)

In addition to Truman the president, we were introduced to

• Truman the near-sighted patriot who memorized the eye chart so he could enlist in World War I
• Truman the candidate of the Prendergast political machine who earned a reputation for honesty building roads in his home county
• Truman the piano student
• Truman the failed businessman

Excellent though the permanent exhibits are, I was particularly taken by a special exhibit on Truman and American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who painted the allegorical mural in the museum lobby: Independence and the Opening of the West. Benton is a long time favorite of mine; Truman was less sure he liked the Missouri painter's work. (He described the main figure in Benton's The Kentuckian as a "long-necked monstrosity.") The exhibit chronicles the parallel lives of president and painter, born five years and fifty miles apart, and the unlikely path that led to their friendship and collaboration. Benton and Truman: Legends of the Missouri Border will be on display through October 14. If you're in the area****, make sure you see it.

And while you're there, pick up a Truman bobble-head doll and a bag of Republican Poop. I resisted and I'm still regretting it.

* We did spend a day at Crystal Bridges, the fabulous art museum in Bentonville Arkansas. Not exactly historical**, but well worth the visit.
** Though there was a fascinating eighteenth century portrait of Lafayette, who apparently looked a lot like a young Jack Benny.
*** His presidency included the decision to drop the atomic bomb, post-war housing shortages, firing the popular General Douglas McArthur****, the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the beginnings of the Cold War, and Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts.
**** You've got to love a man who tells Time magazine "I fired him [MacArthur] because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President…I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail." Give 'em hell, Harry.
*****My Own True Love and I define "in the area" pretty loosely. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, are not exactly next door to each other.

Children of the Days: a Calendar of Human History

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who reached a wide American audience in 2009 with Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, has built his career on a genre-defying blend of history, fiction and political analysis that he describes as “obsessed with remembering”. In Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, he compresses that obsession into a form modeled on the medieval book of days.

Instead of a typical “today in history” almanac, Children of the Days is a series of one-page responses to historical events, people and ideas--closer to riffs than essays. Each is tied more or less to a specific day of the year.

Beginning with the reminder that January 1 “is not the first day of the year for the Mayas, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese or many other inhabitants of this world” and ending with the Hebrew meaning of “Abracadabra”, Children of the Days is unabashedly multicultural. Galeano has a strong bias in favor of historical anecdotes from Latin America, Africa and Asia, but he never romanticizes the non-Western world.

He celebrates not only well-known historical figures, but forgotten heroes and martyrs. He draws unlikely connections and ignores existing cultural hierarchies, discussing the significance of Tarzan’s howl at greater length than responses to Michelangelo’s David. Some themes recur: lost libraries, new knowledge, old prejudices and daring acts of resistance to tyranny. Even when his subjects are familiar, Galeano’s conclusions are always surprising

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awarenesss for Readers