When the Peonies bloomed like giant red and white carnations, and I was allowed to go barefoot for the first time in that the almost-summer time, and the old World War One American Legion vets put their local post caps on when they went to the hardware store, I knew it was a special day called Decoration Day. It is called Memorial Day, mostly, today. Yet since its origins many would have called it Decoration Day. The reason? Quite simple. It was a day to remember those who had fallen in our nation’s wars going all the way back to the broken-hearted years following the American Civil War by decorating their graves. I am sure my days in rural, agrarian Louisiana were not that different from the days of a boy in rural, agrarian Indiana or rural California. It was just the way things were in America in those days. On Decoration Day we would all go to decorate the graves of those uncles and grandfathers and fathers and cousins and neighbors who had died during the conflict of World War I or World War II or Korea. So we would go out to the Palmetto Cemetery in Walker (which used to be called Milton Oldfield) and decorate those graves, or we would go to the National Cemetery in Baton Rouge (which would’ve been pretty much an all-day affair plus having to catch a ride so we only went there every other year or so) where my uncle Woodrow’s body lay. Uncle Woodrow Milton was killed while serving in the Navy during World War II. I will always remember my Aunt Eva and her sister, my Aunt Georgia, talking about the day they stood there at the exact spot where we would be standing on Decoration Day, but back in 1942. “I can still see poor Mama sobbing,” Aunt Georgia would whisper to herself as her memories caused her to lift her shiny black purse up, snap it open, and pull out an embroidered handkerchief. She would dab her eyes. Aunt Eva wouldn’t talk. She just looked down at the gravestone of her little brother. I looked at them. Then they would begin “decorating.” In some ways in my mind, I am still standing there, not saying a word lest I desecrate the moment.
We would always go to the grave of my father. My father did not die directly as a result of a war. But he served in World War II. Jessie Ellis Milton, a graduate of the New London Officer’s Academy, commanded a Merchant Marine ship that carried troops during the war. His war was fought in the frigid and dangerous waters of the North Atlantic where German U-Boats went in deadly schools under the white-capped waves by Greenland and on into his destination of Liverpool. One of those U-Boats aimed and hit my father’s ship off of the coast of Africa. The ship was crippled and one life was lost. He recovered in Cape Town. The DOD sent me his files recently. He sailed again after recovery, as my aunts wrote the War Department for information. Copies of their letters are part the file. The sea-going services were his life. He was discharged as an officer from the Coast Guard after the War. My father died of complications from alcoholism which were part of the complications of his soul which were part of the complications of the seagoing life which were part of the complications of the war. He received the same “decorating” as his brother and my other Uncle (who had served in WWI) and all the others. Whether they died in the service or after, it didn’t matter. They had served. And so we decorated my father’s grave.
I think about other games decorated in days gone by. My great-grandfather, Joseph Austin Milton, served as a rifleman in Company G, the 9 La. Infantry, C.S.A. His company served gallantly as “the fighting tigers” (from whence came the name of the state college mascot) in the western Virginia campaigns under Thomas Jackson. Company G was at Gettysburg. They were utterly decimated. Whether he fought again is in doubt. He was part of Hood’s retreat, but like so many at that juncture, he and his brother, William, were separated from the rest. Somehow they reported to New Orleans and then home. They had been landowners. My great-grandfather was the postmaster of the village named after his father, Michael Milton and his wife, Martha. Reconstruction laws under President Andrew Johnson required that no Confederate soldier hold federal office. So, Joseph Austin Milton could not return to his living nor to his land, which had grown over. He started over as a blacksmith. My grandfather, George Michael Milton, was born when Joseph returned home from war. The, his brother Levi was born. My grandfather would spend the rest of his years seeking to rebuild the village his North Carolina family had founded. The remains of my great-grandfather, Joseph Austin Milton, along with my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, are interred at Chambers Cemetery in what used to be called Amite Springs (now part of Denham Springs, off of the Amite River Road), along the riverside where his parents, Michael and Martha, docked their boat sometime before 1850, at Benton’s Landing. I wonder if anyone will decorate Private Joseph Milton’s grave today? It is sadly ironic that on Decoration Day, founded by young widows to remember our Confederate dead, expanded, sympathetically, to pay homage to all of our lost boys in Blue and Gray, that it has become politically incorrect to, now, honor one side of that American tragedy. Those closer to those horrendous events knew that healing and unity comes in honoring each other’s virtues, not in harboring hatred over each other’s sins. So many of the statues being torn down today in the heat of division were erected, then, in Dawn’s light of a Christian unity. It was as if each side was trying to outdo the other in honoring the bravery and self-sacrifice of their former foe. These were the things that Lee and Grant understood at Appomattox, that Lincoln knew when he ordered “Dixie” to be played at the White House to honor the Confederate dead. These, too, were decorations upon the graves of all our gallant soldiers.
My great-great grandfather, Michael Milton, fought in the War of 1812. His father had come from Anson County, North Carolina (which, then, stretched from the coast to Mecklenburg County), to claim land in Baldwin County, Alabama, a gift that his father’s health prevented him from claiming. Michael’s father, Isham Milton (1749-1834), was from Orange County, North Carolina (present-day Chapel Hill). His father, Robert, along with other brothers, had left Virginia to head into North Carolina a generation earlier. Perhaps, it was a sense of family loyalty to Virginia that led brothers Isham, my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, to join his brothers, Nathaniel and James, to enlist in the 15th Virginia Regiment under Colonel Mason. James would die at Valley Forge. Nathaniel would make it through the War and go on to Tennessee to found a town in honor of Revolutionary War General Greene. My fifth-great-grandfather, Isham Milton, would go to preaching. I have his approved application for veteran benefits. I am not ashamed to say that I treasure his war records from the National Archives. He would die in the disputed boundary lines between North and South Carolina in 1834, long enough to have participated in the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1826. His son, Isham Milton, Jr. my uncle to the third great, was a postmaster in the new county carved out of Anson and Mecklenburg: Union. It is where I live and minister today.
World War II. World War I. The Spanish-American War. The Civil War. The Mexican-American War. The War of 1812. The Revolutionary War. Every time I put on my uniform as a Colonel in the United States Army, I am reminded that I stand in a sacred line of my own fathers, who have worn the uniform of this nation; from the Revolutionary War to World War Two. I write this article to decorate their service and their sacrifice. It is a small thing. But it is the only flowers that I can bring today.
It occurs to me that someone might read this and wonder what it means to “decorate” a grave. It does sound anachronistic. And I suppose it is. There is much good work by the Boy Scouts of America, in particular, today, as they decorate the graves of veterans all over America. My son, who became an Eagle Scout, spent many Memorial Day mornings in his scouting years “decorating” graves of veterans. I shall always recall with great pride the sight of our Chattanooga scouts placing miniature American flags on the acres of graves at the National Cemetery in that beautiful community where I was pastor. So I pay tribute to those who still remember Memorial Day in that way. But the Decoration Days I remember were of more a family occasion, a solemn and moving day where few words were spoken. And there were certain ways to “decorate” a grave. To decorate a grave one would not only plant a miniature U.S. flag, but in those days, it particularly meant that the women would clean the gravestone and place fresh flowers in either a vase or at the foot of the headstone. We would bring a hoe and remove any weeds that had grown up around the grave. When I hear the story of the women going to prepare the body of Jesus after He had been placed in the borrowed tomb, I always think about the women in my life growing up who decorated the graves. There was a nobility in that act. There was a sort of holiness in it. A man would not do that. It was not because men were too good, but because there was a feminine sympathy and compassion which was understood to be more intuitively proper for such a holy task. War was men’s work. That was their honor and their duty. Caring for the dead and the children and grandchildren of those men would be the work of the women. That was their honor and their duty. No one said that. It just was so. Tending their graves was a sacred role the women did not even think to share. I remember being a boy and seeing a female cousin about my age, probably about twelve at the time, when she decided it was her time to join the grown women. I just watched and felt that my girl-cousin was becoming a woman. She got on her knees and began to remove weeds from my father’s grave. No one said a thing. No one, none of the women, at least, even paused to watch. It just happened. That’s just the way things were. The men would watch and would often hold a vase or fetch the hoe from the trunk of the car, as the wife gave the command. But this was their work and noble work it was.
So when I hear Memorial Day, I think Decoration Day and my mind goes back to those far away places and those solemn occasions that stirred me every bit as much as the president of the United States laying a wreath at Arlington. The memory snuck up on me today and stirs me again. It is Decoration Day and I am still following this calling in ministry. I am a long way from my father’s grave. My aunts are in heaven. So, I don’t think the women in my family would mind if I, at least, decorate their graves, the warriors and their women, with holy memory and a grateful heart.