Abraham Lincoln was a son of a bitch,
his ass ran over with a seven-year itch
his fist beat his dick like a blacksmith’s hammer
while his asshole whistled the Star-Spangled Banner
—Shelby Foote, reciting a popular Mississippi ditty
On Memorial Day 2005, George II stood atop 260,000 dead men and told us the day was sent to commemorate American lives ended in Iraq, to “honor them by completing the mission for which they gave their lives; by defeating the terrorists.”
Over on the radio, talk-show host Rick Roberts opined that Memorial Day represented the antithesis of his bete noir: immigration.
Neither man deemed it worthy to note that Memorial Day was intended to honor the dead of the Civil War. George II, in his remarks, mentioned not once that war, though the site of his speech, Arlington National Cemetery, consists of land owned prior to the Civil War by Robert E. Lee, land that, once Lee turned traitor, was confiscated by the US government, then purposefully sown with corpses so as to render it uninhabitable by Lee or his descendants. Roberts didn’t manage to mention the Civil War, either—perhaps because more than 500,000 immigrants served in the Civil War, constituting some 25% of the Union Army.
In contrast to George II and Mr. Rick, white folk living in our southern states understand the nature and meaning of Memorial Day. Which is why they don’t much like to celebrate it.
In his distressing tome Confederates in the Attic, journalist Tony Horwitz finds himself in Vicksburg, Mississippi on a Memorial Day in the mid-1990s. In that town, Horwitz found, there were two American Legion posts: one white, one black.
The white Legionnaires refused to involve themselves in Memorial Day. “‘You do Memorial Day,’” they informed the black post, “‘and we’ll do Veteran’s Day.’” Every year the black post would invite the white Legionnaires to attend a Memorial Day wreath-laying ceremony; every year the white Legionnaires declined to attend. The black post had to pay for black marching bands to come in from out of state; there were always “reasons” why the local school band could not participate.
“They said, ‘School got out a few days ago and the uniforms have been washed and put away,’” Horwitz was told. “Well, we can wash them again. The cleaners aren’t leaving town. But that’s their excuse. There’s a Miss Mississippi pageant in July. I bet you the school band comes out for that.”
May 28, 1996 saw a massive community turnout in Vicksburg for the passing of the Olympics Torch on its way to the games in Atlanta. Bands from all the local schools and military installations participated. But for the Vicksburg Memorial Day ceremony two days later, these bands were unavailable. As the local Army Engineers for two years refused to fire the traditional twenty-one gun salute at the Memorial Day ceremony, claiming it could not afford the ammunition.
White folk in Vicksburg remain so wedded to the Lost Cause that many don’t even acknowledge the Fourth of July. Shelby Foote recalls that in the 1930s “there was a family from Ohio in town, God knows why, and on July Fourth they drove their car up on the levee and spread a blanket and had a picnic. They didn’t set the brakes on the car and it ran down into the Mississippi River and everyone said, ‘It served them right for celebrating the Fourth of July.’”
So renowned was Vicksburg’s resistance to celebrating July 4 that Dwight Eisenhower was dispatched to the community in 1947, charged with convincing the town’s white citizens to rejoin the Union. His visit had little effect. At the end of the 20th Century, there were still no July 4th fireworks in Vicksburg. To the white Vicksburger, July 4 remains a day of mourning: the anniversary of the 1863 day the city capitulated to the Union.
In Vicksburg, as elsewhere in the south, the preferred holiday is Confederate Memorial Day, a day in which the celebrant wallows in remembrance of the righteousness of the Cause. Reflecting the fact that it is utterly hopeless to expect in this country any sort of accurate collective memory of the true “reasons” why George II annihilated Iraq, Alabama Governor Bob Riley was in 2005 convinced by Lost Causists to excise from his annual Confederate Memorial Day proclamation a paragraph “that said slavery was a cause of the [Civil] War.”
The ongoing southernization of America further requires that rebs, though they deeply despise the day, actually be credited with the founding of Memorial Day. A tale is spun in which two Mississippi war widows decide in 1866 to place flowers upon the graves of fallen soldiers, American and secessionist alike. But the notion that this mythical act marked the flowering of Memorial Day is, in truth, a lie.
A word about Shelby Foote. Amid the fawning coverage of Foote following Ken Burns’ The Civil War, it was little noted that this southern historian admired as “a fine man” the slave trader and terrorist Nathan Bedford Forrest, described the Ku Klux Klan as “very akin” to the French Resistance, considered emancipation “a sin,” and damned modern blacks for behaving “somewhere between ape and man.”
Yeehaw. March on a road of bones. Same as it ever was.