Memorial Day has come again to the Fredericksburg area. Over the long weekend there will be special programs and commemorative events. The most spectacular presentation will be Saturday’s annual lighting of the luminary at the National Cemetery on Willis Hill, above the Sunken Road. It is a touching secular service to say the least, more so when the spectator fully appreciates what each of the burning candles represents.
This Monday will be one of the rare occasions when the “Memorial Day Monday” actually falls on the originally intended date for the observance, May 30. The first Memorial Day was held on May 30, 1868. The concept was proposed by the official organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic. The observance was originally called “Decoration Day” until 1882, but the official name change was not made until 1967. The National Holiday Act of 1971 made Memorial Day one of the congressionally mandated three day weekends, along with George Washington’s birthday and Veterans Day.
In the Fredericksburg area, May is nearly a full month of remembrance and anniversary commemorations of three major Civil War battles: Chancellorsville, May 1-4, 1863; The Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864; and Spotsylvania, May 8-21, 1864. During the Civil War, the soil of Spotsylvania County became a blood soaked landscape, literally. Within an 18 month span, December 1862 through May 1864, there were over one hundred thousand casualties, a true testament to the horrors of what men can do to each other when embracing the triad of “duty, honor, and country.” And that is, what it is. May is a very significant month in the collective experience of our nation and the region.
At the same time, for a good many people, the “Memorial Day weekend” is the precursor to “summer vacation”, and it is spent in traveling to fun in the sun spots, and endless barbeques. The true solemnity of the intent is lost in revelry and laughter. This “Holiday” has become an embraced “extra day off” as well as an excuse to hold “SALES” at most any retail establishment. Again, that is what that is. The collective conscience seemingly deals with this lapse.
Personally, I find it disturbing that we, as a society, find it easy to “drop the ball” so to speak, on acknowledging the human toll, both in lives lost and in depredations across the board. Initially, it may be excused as the societal mind’s effort to steel itself against the “emotional plague of mankind” as Wilhelm Reich defined it. However, I believe it is more correctly interpreted as a movement toward a trend of “social engineering” where mankind represses so many “hurtful” things that ultimately the society weakens its resolve and slides toward emasculated culture. This is the destiny of an increasingly nihilistic society, one preoccupied with the search for perpetual entertainment. Ultimately we sit on a precipice where historiography will fall victim to the historian’s fallacy, and apply a skewed interpretation of the past via the jaundiced eye of presentism.
That’s my take on it at least.
As chair of the Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, I would like to personally thank those who continue to financially support our annual Luminary Program, and help us to never forget the sacrifices of our men and women in the armed forces.
John Cummings is a visual historian and the author of two books on the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania region, the newest due out June 27. He has also written for several national and local magazines and newspapers, and provided historical research and commentary for three documentary films. John has served on the former Spotsylvania Courthouse Tourism and Special Events Commission, and is the chairperson for the Friends of the Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, (FoFAB).
Visit his blog at: http://spotsylvaniacw.blogspot.com/