The Complicated Roots of Memorial Day and Why It’s Celebrated

The Complicated Roots of Memorial Day and Why It’s Celebrated

Memorial Day weekend is the busiest and unofficial start of summer for travel in the United States; A day for cookouts, beach trips and auto races. But how did Memorial Day, held on the last Monday of May in honor of America’s war dead, begin?

Here’s a brief refresher:

The holiday grew out of the Civil War, as Americans — Northern, Southern, black and white — struggled to honor the staggering number of dead soldiers, at least 2 percent of the American population at the time. Several places claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. One of the earliest accounts is from Boalsburg, Pa. It comes from where, in October 1864, three women placed flowers and wreaths on the graves of men who had died while serving the Union during the Civil War.

In May 1865, just after the war ended, a large procession was held in the ruined city of Charleston, SC, by thousands of black Americans, many of whom had been enslaved until the city was freed just a few months earlier. Union life was commemorated, the prisoners were buried in a mass grave at the former Racecourse. The service was led by approximately 3,000 school children carrying roses and singing the union marching song “John Brown’s Body”. According to historical accounts, hundreds of women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses.

Cities in the North and South began to honor their war dead. In May 1866, Waterloo, NY, was decorated with flags “draped at half-mast, draped with evergreens and mourning blacks”, according to the village. In Columbus, Virgina, that same year, women were said to have placed flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.

Whatever its inception, historians agree that the first widely held commemoration was in 1868, when General John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, designated the national holiday Called to remember. civil war dead Their bodies, he said, lay in almost every town, village and cathedral.

May 30, Mr. Logan wrote an order “to be designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who fell in defense of their country.”

For many years, the commemoration was widely known as “Decoration Day”. But as it evolved to honor not only Civil War soldiers but all soldiers who served the country, Americans began to refer to the observance as “Memorial Day.” One of the first references to the commemoration in The New York Times is an article published on June 7, 1868. It describes a note, accompanying a wreath, from “a little girl about 10 years old” requesting that an officer put down the wreath. At the grave of an unknown rebel soldier. Her father, she explained, was buried in Andersonville, Ga., and she hoped “some little girl” would do the same at his grave.

A postcard from 1908 possibly depicting General Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee are shown shaking hands.Credit…Getty Images

Another article, published on May 31, 1870, describes processions in New York City and Brooklyn (then separate cities), among other places. The story noted that, apart from Independence Day, “there was no day that called more to the patriotic feelings of our people than ‘Memorial Day,'” adding that it was a national holiday, established by the legislature. Not by any enactment but by the “general consent of the people”.

Congress formally renamed the memorial in 1967. A few years later, the government decided that Memorial Day should not be celebrated on May 30, but on the last Monday of that month.

The change was part of a broader effort to create a three-day weekend, said Sarah Weixel, director of research and publications with the American Historical Association: “They wanted this to be an opportunity for people to be able to gather.”

Although Memorial Day has evolved, it remains a day to honor those who died in the nation’s wars. Veterans Day, however, honors all those who have served in the US military.

Veterans Day, celebrated annually on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I in 1918. The holiday was first celebrated in the United States in 1919, but was broadened in the 1950s to include all veterans.

Both holidays honor those who have served the country, and the way they are remembered may seem similar. But, after World War I, veterans wanted “their own commemoration that North and South could celebrate together,” Henry W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote by email.

Experts say that nearly 160 years after the end of the American Civil War, the true origins of Memorial Day are unclear. But the dark history of the holiday isn’t universally embraced. In 2021, the microphone of a veteran who tried to give credit to Black Americans during a US Army service in Hudson, Ohio was silenced.

“Charleston forgot this story because it didn’t fit” the emerging narrative in the defeated South, said David W. Blight, a historian at Yale University. In the 1990s he revealed details of the Racecourse Procession, which took place at a site that was once popular with planters. Of the Black marchers, he said, “they were rewriting it as a place to celebrate their freedom.”

According to Dr. Blight, white Southerners used Memorial Day to perpetuate their lost mythology, the idea that the rebellion was an honorable rebellion against Northern tyranny that had little or nothing to do with slavery.

The notion that both sides of the war had fought for a noble cause was reflected in what Frederick Douglass said at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1871: “Let us never forget that the victory of the Rebellion meant the death of the Republic. We should never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest under this soil throw themselves among those who destroy the country and the nation.


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