Memorial Day originated after the Civil War, as communities gathered at this time of year to honor those who had died in the War. In late May 1869, Chief Justice Salmon Chase received a letter from South Carolina, inviting him to speak at a cemetery there. He responded as follows:
“Your note inviting me to attend the ceremony of decorating at Magnolia Cemetery the graves of the brave men who fell in defense of the Union during the recent civil war, only reached me this morning. I am very sorry that I cannot be with you on this most interesting occasion; but it is now too late to make the necessary arrangements. The nation cannot too tenderly cherish the memory of her dead heroes, or too watchfully guard the well-being of those who survive. And may we not indulge the hope that ere long we who adhered to the national cause will be prompt also to join in commemorating the heroism of our countrymen who fell on the other side, and that those who now specially mourn their loss, consenting to the arbitrament of arms, and resuming all their old love for their country and our country, one and indivisible, will join with us in like commemoration of the fallen brave of the army of the Union? The dead are not dead. They have only gone before, and now see eye to eye. Why may not we all borrow from their sacred graves oblivion of past differences and henceforth unite in noble and generous endeavor to assure the honor and welfare of our whole country, of all her States and of all her citizens?”
Chase’s letter was widely printed in the newspapers, and many noticed especially his comment about honoring those who fell on the other side. Chase was urging northerners, as well as southerners, to honor those who had died fighting for the South.
Nowadays, many of us view with serious suspicion anyone who would honor those who died fighting for the South. Many think that southern cities should remove, from their central squares, statues of Confederate soldiers, because those soldiers were fighting to defend slavery, and because those who erected the statues were also creating a new form of semi-slavery.
Chase hated slavery as much as any man. As a lawyer, starting in about 1840, he represented many blacks claiming freedom from slavery, so many that he was called “attorney general for runaway negroes.” As an intellectual, he argued that slavery was merely a state institution, not part of the federal structure, not lawful anywhere outside the southern slave states. As a political leader, he created political antislavery parties, turning antislavery from a fringe cause of eccentrics into the powerful political force that captured the presidency in 1860.
Chase also hated the way in which southern whites, after the Civil War, oppressed southern blacks. He was keen to see blacks have all the rights of whites. He believed the best way for southern blacks to protect themselves was to acquire and use their voting rights. Indeed, even before the Civil War ended, Chase disagreed with Lincoln about this issue; Lincoln did not want to take a public stand on whether southern blacks should vote; Chase thought Lincoln should speak out in favor of “universal suffrage.”
So Chase’s comments about honoring those who died fighting for the South did not reflect sympathy with slavery or with southern white oppression of southern blacks. No, they reflected a greater dream, that all parts of the United States, and all people in the United States, inspired by the dead, could move forward together.
Is this not a dream that speaks to us today, on this Memorial Day, in 2020? We are a sadly divided nation: divided along regional, political and racial lines. As in the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction, there is a tendency to view those with whom we disagree as out-and-out enemies. May we not, in Chase’s words, borrow from the sacred graves of the dead, and unite in noble and generous efforts to assure the honor and welfare of our whole country?