May 27, 2019

Memorial Day: The tangled backstory

Library of Congress, LC-BH825-40

The history of Memorial Day is the subject of a longstanding academic smackdown, with dozens of cities and towns claiming to be the holiday’s birthplace.

The backstory: Scholars agree that in 1868, three years after the Civil War’s end, Union Army General John A. Logan established a national holiday “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” What’s disputed is where he got the idea.

Among the contenders:

  • Columbus, Ga., where a Confederate widow who regularly decorated her husband’s grave wrote a widely published letter to the editor in 1866 calling for “a day to be set apart annually” for Southerners to observe this “sad but pleasant duty.”
  • Columbus, Miss., where a small group of women gathered in 1866 to place flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, a gesture of reconciliation.
  • Charleston, S.C., where African-American residents honored slain Union soldiers in a May Day ceremony in 1865.
  • Waterloo, N.Y., where villagers marched “to the strains of martial music” in an 1866 parade to decorate soldiers’ graves.* (In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo the birthplace of Memorial Day, though most scholars disagree.)

There are even dueling Memorial Day research centers. One, at the University of Mississippi, supports the view that “so widespread was the impulse to honor the war dead that observances occurred spontaneously in several locations.”

The other, at Columbus State University in Georgia, makes a persuasive case that the Confederate widow’s letter to the editor got the ball rolling.

  • “We examine every claim in our [2014] book, and the vast majority are just disprovable myths,” Richard Gardiner of the Columbus State Center for Memorial Day Research told Axios.

Literary bonus: Francis Miles Finch, a Northerner and Yale grad, was so touched by the Mississippi women who had decorated both Union and Confederate graves that he wrote a poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” that was published in The Atlantic in 1867. Its message — of a nation knitting together over the brave sacrifices of its soldiers — is one that resonates today.

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U.S. and Taliban sign peace deal

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in Qatar. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on Saturday after over a year of off-and-on negotiations, The New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The signing of the deal officially begins the process of ending the United States' longest war, which has spanned nearly two decades. The agreement sets a timetable for the U.S. to pull its remaining 13,000 troops out of Afghanistan, per the Times, but is contingent on the Taliban's completion of commitments, including breaking ties with international terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.

Biden bets it all on South Carolina

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Most Joe Biden admirers Axios interviewed in South Carolina, where he's vowed to win today's primary, said they're unfazed by his embarrassing losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Why it matters: Biden has bet it all on South Carolina to position himself as the best alternative to Bernie Sanders — his "good buddy," he tells voters before skewering Sanders' record and ideas.

Coronavirus updates: Market ends worst week since financial crisis

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The stock market ended its worst week since the financial crisis, prompting the Fed to release a statement. Meanwhile, the WHO warned that countries are losing their chance to contain the novel coronavirus and raised its global risk assessment to "very high" Friday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed more than 2,860 people and infected more than 84,000 others in over 60 countries and territories outside the epicenter in mainland China. The number of new cases reported outside China now exceed those inside the country.

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