Day honors fallen Civil War troops

Members of the Palmetto Battalion fire their rifles in a military salute during the Charleston Confederate Memorial Day at Magnolia Cemetery in 1999.

There was a time when Confederate Memorial Day was a busy one for politicians.

Elected officials were often the featured speakers at May 10 services for fallen Civil War soldiers, and they used the occasion — and the gathered crowds — to do a little politicking.

But it’s not that way anymore. “It’s all about those men and their sacrifice and to make sure they aren’t forgotten,” said Randy Burbage, past commander of the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “I think at one time it got away from that, but we’re heading back in the right direction.”

In other words, this holiday is not about politics, the causes of the Civil War or self-promotion. It is simply about remembering the people who served in the nation’s bloodiest conflict.

You won’t see politicians at any of the Lowcountry’s eight memorial services over the next 10 days, save for Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell. And you can bet the man charged with shepherding the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley from recovery to conservation won’t be talking about anything other than 19th-century soldiers and sailors.

Confederate Memorial Day has only been a state holiday for a dozen years, but the tradition dates back to the 19th century. It has its origins in the Siege of Charleston, when ladies of the city would bury fallen soldiers by candlelight at night during the bombardment of the city. They placed First National flags of the Confederacy on each grave.

After Reconstruction, the tradition began again — May 10 was chosen because it is the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s memorial service at Magnolia Cemetery, where some 800 Confederate soldiers are buried, has been held every year since 1894. Today’s ceremony is at 3 p.m.

June Murray Wells, president of the Charleston Chapter No. 4 of the UDC, and a former national president of the organization, has been attending these services since she was a little girl, when there were still a few actual Civil War veterans who attended the ceremonies.

In those days, the city shut down and 3,000 or so people turned out for a short service to remember the thousands who died during the war.

Although the city no longer closes for business, and the crowds rarely swell to even 1,000, Confederate Memorial Day — as it was originally intended to be — is not soon to be gone with the wind.

“We’re keeping up a tradition,” Wells said.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561.

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