President Barack Obama sent a wreath Monday to a memorial for soldiers who fought on the side of slavery during the Civil War, continuing a 90-year-old Memorial Day tradition despite being urged by historians to “break this chain of racism.”
The first black U.S. president also started a new tradition by sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington honoring the 200,000 black soldiers who fought for Union forces in America’s bloodiest conflict.
“We ask you to break this chain of racism stretching back to Woodrow Wilson and not send a wreath or other token of esteem to the Arlington Confederate Monument,” a group of historians urged Obama earlier this month.
“This monument should not be elevated in prestige above other monuments by a presidential wreath,” the scholars said.
Obama did not mention the controversy in remarks at Arlington National Cemetary after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, which holds the remains of unidentified soldiers from World Wars I and II and the Korean War.
The cemetary is built on the former estate of General Robert E. Lee, who led the Condederate forces and is revered in American history despite fighting on behalf of states who wanted slavery to continue and spread.
Lee’s home still stands at the top of the hill overlooking nearly a quarter of a million graves and across the Potomac River from the memorial to slain President Abraham Lincoln, who led the Union to victory in the conflict from 1861 to 1865 and was assassinated just after the war was won.
Obama paid tribute to the soldiers who have fought in all America’s wars and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“To walk these grounds then is to walk through that history. Not far from here, appropriately just across a bridge connecting Lincoln to Lee, Union and Confederate soldiers share the same land in perpetuity,” Obama said.
Section 60 at the bottom of the hill is the resting spot for many soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afganistan wars.
“The wounds of war are fresh in Section 60. The steady stream of visitors leaves reminders of life, photos, teddy bears, favorite magazines. Friends place small stones as a sign they stopped by. Combat units leave bottles of beer or stamp cigarettes into the ground as a salute to those they rode in battle with,” Obama said.
Those that feel the “tug” of duty and are willing to put their lives on the line for their country “are the best of America, and that is what separates them from those who’ve not served in uniform,” Obama said, acknowledging that he belonged in the second group.
“My grandfather served in Patton’s Army in World War II, but I cannot know what it is like to walk into battle. I’m the father of two young girls, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child. These are things I cannot know,” Obama said.
Obama began the day by having breakfast with families of U.S. soldiers killed in war. In the afternoon, he played golf at the Fort Belvoir Golf Club outside Washington.
Obama also sent wreaths to memorials for those who died in the explosion of the USS Maine and in the Spanish American war.
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Photo credit: Jonathan Ernst (Obama places wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns; veterans listen to Obama speak at Arlington National Cemetery)