Monday, May 30, 2011
One thing I learned when I moved to Virginia is that I know nothing about the Civil War. Everything I learned about it at school was either completely Union-centric or wholly inadequate. Luckily, I live in Virginia, so I am learning heaps. And not only that, I live on a battlefield--well, near to one, anyway. There may have been skirmishes where our house is, definitely gunboats heading up the James to batter Fort Boykin, which is about a mile and a half away from here, part of Magruder's line of defences across the Peninsula. You can't take two steps in this state without tripping across a historical monument.
Memorial Day was started by Confederate ladies decorating the graves of their dead. Gradually, of course, it spread to encompass all servicemen and -women who gave their lives for this country. It is a day to reflect and remember those who gave all so that we can enjoy the freedoms we do. Yesterday I was walking into the grocery store when I saw a woman standing by the door wearing a pair of red, white and blue pinwheels sticking up from a headband, red white and blue beads--and I felt momentarily embarrassed, like I do whenever I see someone paint themselves up in patriotic colours and dance around screaming "USA! USA! HELL YEAH!" Yes, the USA is pretty awesome--but I prefer a more dignified approach, remembering that other people feel their countries are pretty awesome as well, and that may cause friction. Anyway, I soon realised this woman was collecting money for the American Legion, and I dropped a dollar into the coffee can she had decorated with patriotic fabric. She gave me a poppy, and I put it on my purse. Poppies come from World War I...it's amazing how history can roll along, symbols and days all melding together until we do things without exactly remembering why or where the initial movement came from. Yesterday at church we honored our veterans by having them stand while three little girls sang a song called "Thank you, Soldiers." But it's memorial day...
There was also a letter to the editor yesterday from a man who wanted the US government to honor fallen Confederate soldiers by placing Confederate flags on their graves. After all, that is the cause they died for. It is an interesting plea. Graveyards containing Confederates that are private or in the hands of local townships are usually honored in this way. But graveyards that are on Federal lands--i.e. graveyards where Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers were buried side by side and were then taken over as federal land by the US government--receive no such treatment. Everyone gets a Stars and Stripes. I can understand how awkward it would be honoring people who were, after all, rebelling against their government by putting a traitorous flag in a United States graveyard...but then again, Confederates soldiers might prefer to just have flags left off all together if the only option is a US flag.
What's in a flag anyway? Should we honor our 1812 soldier by having a US flag that accurately reflects the number of states at that time? Or is the point not the politics but the remembering--taking time out to say thank you and we remember? In Williamsburg there is a small cemetery containing French soldiers who died in 1781...part of Williamsburg's memorial day service includes laying a wreath at their graves, but no flags. A French flag would be appropriate, and less likely to rankle than a Confederate flag--but wait, these soldiers fought for the French king, and so a Bourbon flag would be used. Yet the Republican French government that sprang up shortly after our Revolution would have looked upon that as traitorous, and so it goes.
(by the way--one of the things I've learned is that the flag we think of as the "Confederate" flag was not as prevalent as we modern folk think. Yes, it existed, yes, it was carried into battle, and yes the South did use it as a symbol of oppression, but that was largely in the 20th century...the the Confederates fought under the three National flags...so the most appropriate flag would be the third National)
I don't even know if I have a point today, except I've been thinking about Memorial Day. Personally, I believe that an appropriate flag to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers might be their battalion flag--after all, many vets have said that what they were fighting for was the person next to them. It's not always easy to tell what battalion a fallen soldier has come from, however. And maybe, in the end, that's why it's just simpler to stick to one flag--our flag, the modern Stars and Stripes: "We remember. We may have changed as a country, but we remember your sacrifice. Thank you."