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Arlington National Cemetery and Memorial Day-Traditions Born in Irony

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 nation’s most hallowed ground.

No one can trace with any certainty the origin of the Memorial Day, it is well believed that the day was born with those who decorated the graves of civil war dead.

Many towns (Waterloo NY being the most prominent) have laid claim to the origin of the tradition. It may have started with women in the South. Originally it was know as Decoration Day. Towns held parades honoring the fallen, the parade routes often times ending at a local cemetery, where Decoration Day speeches were then given. People took the time that day to clean and decorate with flowers and flags the graves of those the fell in service to their country.


In May 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation calling for the decoration of graves.

“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”– General Logan – May 5, 1868

In 1882 the day was changed to Memorial Day and to be observed May 30th. In 1971 it was moved to the last Monday in May. Ironically there are some in the south that observe the day on a different day.

Another tradition of Memorial Day is that of giving speeches, addresses or orations at gatherings. The most famous memorial oratory was the one given by Abraham Lincoln and although he gave it on November 19, 1863 it sets the model for speeches and orations of the type. The irony is that the address was not the main oration to be given that day nor expected to be a long speech. According to Gary Wills, author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America,” the address uses the form of the oratory of the Greek Revival and of the funereal addresses of ancient Athens, the imagery of the nineteenth-century rural cemetery movement, the Transcendentalist thought of Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the constitutional arguments of Daniel Webster. That he did this in some 272 words is a masterpiece of our American literature.” His words are quoted every Memorial Day:

“..that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion: that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; and that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


In the 150 years since the Civil War, our nation has healed its wounds and every Memorial Day pauses to remember the war dead. In that time Arlington National Cemetery and the the traditions of Memorial Day have gone hand in hand. In 1912 the country was truly reunited when the Confederate monument was dedicated at Arlington and a special section was set for those who served in the Confederate Army. The cemetery which was set to honor Americans ironically today holds the remains of many foreign nationals including a German soldier from WWII.

In 1958, the Unknowns from World War II and the Korean Conflict were laid to rest on Memorial Day and in 1984 the Vietnam Unknown joined them in honored rest. Another irony is that the Unknown was identified and reburied in Missouri.

Ironically, over the years the meaning of Memorial Day has faded too much from the public consciousness. From a solemn day of mourning, remembrance, and honor to our departed loved ones, it has turned into a weekend of Bar B Q’s, shopping bargains and beaches where only token nods toward our honored dead is given, if at all.

I think Oliver Wendell Holmes, chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Civil War Veteran said it best:

“So to the indifferent inquirer who asks why Memorial Day is still kept up we may answer, it celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly”-Oliver Wendell Holmes Memorial Day address May 30, 1884

The final tradition is the bugle call

Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to stir our emotions than the haunting and eloquent melody of Taps. The call is unique to the United States military. Taps is used at U.S. bases around the world as the final call of the day. It has given a sense of safety and security to U.S. soldiers from the Civil War on, signaling to our men and women in uniform that another day in service to their country is done and all is well.

There is a wonderful myth about the origin of Taps. During the Civil War, it says, there was a young soldier who was killed while fighting for the Confederacy. His father, a captain in the Union Army, came upon his son’s body on the battlefield. In the pocket of his uniform, the captain found the notes for Taps. Ironically, this story will be repeated on Memorial Day.


This is a great story but it’s just that a story.

In 1862, Union General Daniel Butterfield and his brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, revised an earlier bugle call to create the 24 notes we know today as Taps. The new call quickly spread throughout the Union army and was soon used even by Confederates to signal the end of the day.

Later that same year at a battlefield funeral, Captain John Tidball chose to forgo firing the customary volleys over the grave for fear that he might rouse the enemy. The Captain chose the sounding of Taps as the most appropriate substitute.

Today, sounding Taps at ceremonies is the most sacred duty a bugler can perform. When I sound Taps at a funeral, I’m sometimes approached by family members who wish to thank me for being part of the service. To answer “You’re welcome” seems inappropriate. Instead, I always reply, “It is my honor.”

So traditions born of Irony are celebrated every Memorial Day


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