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The Strange Irony of Memorial Day Traditions and Arlington National Cememtery

Arlington National Cemetery and Memorial Day
Traditions Born in Irony

On any weekday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, a military ritual occurs that is both familiar and moving. An escort of honor comes to attention and presents arms. A firing party then fires three volleys. After the briefest of moments, a bugler sounds the twenty-four notes we know of as Taps. The flag, held by members of the military honor guard, is then folded into a triangle reminiscent of the cocked hat from the American Revolution. This ceremony is performed almost twenty times daily during the many funerals held at Arlington. This ritual is also used for the thousands of Memorial Day ceremonies held throughout the United States during events held to remember those Americans who have served our country. As one travels through Arlington the history of our country can literally be read on the quarter million stones.

Arlington and the tradition of Memorial Day were born out of ironies perhaps we might even consider them as tragic or dramatic as in a Greek or Shakespearean irony.

Irony-The famous home at Arlington was located on the land of a Confederate General whose wife’s grandfather served as president of the United States.

Irony-The land was ordered for military use by a general who so hated that Confederate general that he ordered graves dug in the rose garden so that house could not longer be habitable.

Irony-The tradition of decorations on graves started in the south, then considered an enemy country.

And it is a bitter irony that the day of remembrance has almost faded into a weekend of picnics, shopping sprees, and beach vacations. Too many don’t know what the day stands for.

Between 1861 and 1865 our country sorted out whether it could survive as one or two separate nations. It took the tragedy of a Civil War to make us truly a “United” States.

In the spring of 1864 after some of the bloodiest battles of the war and with the Confederacy in it’s last desperate months, the need for more military cemeteries became a paramount issue in Washington D.C. In the days before refrigeration, and especially in the humidity of the District of Columbia, bodies had to be buried as quickly as possible.

In May 1864 Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs was ordered by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to find new and suitable burial grounds for the mounting dead. Without hesitation, Meigs ordered the grounds of the Custis-Lee mansion be turned into a cemetery.

The mansion, which had belonged to Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, was under the control of Union forces. Meigs (a Georgia man by birth) picked the grounds not only because he felt Lee had betrayed his country by leaving it to serve the south but also because he blamed him for the death of his son who had been killed by Confederate soldiers, supposedly murdered. The interment of Union soldiers began in May, Ironically the first burial in the Union cemetery was a Confederate soldier. The grounds would go on to become Arlington National Cemetery our nations’ most hallowed ground.
 






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