By the spring of 1864 Union dead had completely filled the cemeteries of both Washington and Alexandria. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton directed the Quartermaster General, Montgomery Meigs (below, left) to find a new site for more burials. Meigs, who had a reputation as a hard driving, and scrupulously honest officer, had been born in Augusta, Georgia. Indeed he had served under Robert E. Lee in the peace time Union Army. But by this point in 1864, Meigs had come to hate all of
his former fellow officers who had taken up arms against the Union to which he had remained loyal, including to no small degree Robert E. Lee himself. And it was with this anger in his heart that Gen. Meigs chose the grounds of Lee’s old mansion home in Arlington, Virginia (below) for the new site that Sec. Stanton had ordered him to find. In fact, Meigs ordered the Union dead to be buried within a few feet of General Lee’s front door. Lee was responsible for their deaths, so Lee’s land would serve as their final resting place, and the graves would be close enough to the mansion that nobody would ever be able to live there again. This order would take on a very personal significance for Gen. Meigs, as in October of 1864, his son, Lieutenant John Rodgers Meigs was killed while serving with the Union Army at Swift Run Gap in Virginia. He wound up being buried in what had once been Mrs. Lee’s flower garden. This went on throughout the rest of the war, with the men who had fallen before Lee’s lines, being buried in his very own front yard, which became Arlington National Cemetery.
“Memorial Day” is Established
During the Civil War, some 600,000 men were killed – nearly every city, town and hamlet in the country suffered the loss of some significant portion of it’s male population. As the conflict drew to a close, mourners started decorating the graves of the fallen soldiers with flowers and small flags. It was in Waterloo, New York that this practice was first made an official day of remembrance when May 5 was designated as a day for all of the town’s shops and businesses to close so the townspeople could decorate the graves of the war dead in 1866. There were nevertheless a great many different days that were set aside for this recognition, and General John Logan, head of the Union Army Veterans Association lead an effort to combine these days into one day. May 30th was the best day and Gen. Logan chose that date for two very important reasons: First, the day did not mark the anniversary of a Civil War battle, and second “flowers would likely be in bloom all over the United States.” And it was in that very cemetery at Arlington which Gen. Meigs had set aside that the first National Memorial Day ceremony was held on May 30 in 1868, when 5,000 Civil War widows, orphans and family members placed flowers on the graves of the 20,000 Civil War veterans who were therein interred… both Union and Confederate. Eventually, the name of the day was changed to Memorial Day, although older Americans (such as my Grandmother) continued to call it “Decoration Day”. In 1971, Congress designated the fourth Monday in May as a national Memorial Day holiday.
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“The Civil War” – Produced by Ken Burns, PBS, 1990, Episode 7, “Most Hallowed Ground”