Another Memorial Day Blog…but it’s History!

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Memorial Day Flags
Memorial Day Flags

First, I think it is important that everyone remembers what Memorial Day is really about; it isn’t the “official start of summer,” it is not a day to recover from the drunken stupor which was a result of watching the Indianapolis 500, nor is it a day to take off of work to fire up the barbecue. Memorial Day is a federal holiday that is to honor and remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Not that today should be a day of complete mourning, but to greet someone with “Happy Memorial Day!”, while slamming down the keg you picked up on the way to the party, is insensitive to the day’s true meaning.

That being said, the history behind Memorial Day.

It seems fitting that the history of Memorial Day falls into the middle of my Civil War “mini-series” (Part I, Part II, and Part III already completed…check them out!), because Memorial Day was originated to remember the fallen from the Civil War.

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was established as a day to remember the Union soldiers that had fallen in the Civil War. There are several emotionally stirring stories that have been attributed to the launch of Memorial Day; women in Savannah, Georgia, are documented as decorating graves of those fallen in 1862 (remember, at this point the Civil War was still ongoing and would be until 1865), in 1863, at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, there was a ceremony for the fallen soldiers, and in 1864, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, the city had services to the fallen. To this day, the city of Boalsburg claims that they are the originators of Memorial Day. However, my favorite story of the first Memorial Day is the one that took place in Charleston, South Carolina.

On May 1st, 1865, only weeks after the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, nearly ten thousand people (most of which were black, freedmen) gathered to pay honor to the 257 Union prisoners that had died while captive at the Charleston Race Course. When a death occurred for prisoners of war here, the bodies were quickly buried in unmarked graves. In appreciation for their sacrifices made to combat slavery, the freedmen cleaned up, landscaped, and properly decorated the unmarked graves on these honorable soldiers. Historian David W. Blight described it best:

This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.

General John A. Logan
General John A. Logan

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization for Union Civil War veterans), declared that May 30th would be “Decoration Day.” Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states that year and 336 the next.

In 1882, the name “Decoration Day” was changed to “Memorial Day”, but was not officially changed by Federal law until 1967. At this time, the date of remembrance had remained May 30th, but on June 28th of the following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day, along with Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, to a revolving Monday schedule to create convenient three-day weekends. (Which is cited as the main reason for lack of respect on this day.)

Until now, I have described how the North viewed and contributed to Memorial Day. Starting in 1866, Southern states established Confederate Memorial Day, a day to remember those that had fallen fighting for the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Memorial Day has become a day not so much about fallen soldiers, but a day of honoring certain soldiers and remembering the Confederate’s cause.

So when did we go from Memorial Day being about the American Civil War to honoring all men? Shortly after World War 1. While there is no legislation or definitive date which led to the change of the public’s mindset of the holiday, there is a general consensus that it was in 1922(ish), which was within a few years of the end of World War I.

So, everyone should take a minute to remember all the fallen soldiers of United States Armed Forces, especially those that lost their lives in the American Civil War. Without their great sacrifices, the thoughts of civil rights and freedom for all would still be a dream.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Just finished reading Blight’s NYTimes article. That had to have been one of the most significant celebrations in the history of our country, and nobody knew about it for almost 150 years.(Why we need historians!)

  2. Yes, I find that generic high school and college courses only give skeleton history lessons. It is the details that makes history so interesting. Until I looked into this topic for this blog, I had never heard of this before!

    • This is also what frustrates me do much as a high school history teacher: exam boards pack the syllabus with content content content, but don’t allow the time or space to get into interesting or personal stories about the impact of [insert war here].
      I’ve just finished a uni essay on uncovering the voice of the “subaltern” – this South Carolina version of Memorial Day is a classic example of how there may be many simultaneous beginnings, or beginnings are attributed pre-dating the original so as not to credit it for “political” reasons.

  3. I was one of those history students who never got it. Wars & politics & of course major exports if you’re studying another country. About 10 years ago I saw a Black History Month bulletin board with a picture of James Farmer, with no explanation. No one there knew who he was other than “a civil rights leader like Martin Luther King”. I looked him up and learned he was a founder of CORE, but what fascinated me was that he grew up less than a hundred miles from here and his father was a college president [J. Leonard Farmer, played by Forrest Whitaker in The Great Debaters] and pastor who expected James Jr to go into the ministry but he didn’t because of the racism in the church. This was personal! An older friend who went to school there actually remembered Dr Farmer, and the racism of *my* Methodist Church changed history. So now I drift around the innawebz throwing out little historical factoids hoping they’ll hit someone the same way.

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