The History of America’s Memorial Day and What It Commemorates

The early celebrations were not about remembering the fallen from the war. They were effectively extended family reunions, a sort of folk ancestor worship specifically developed out of the folkways of the American South. A religious service typically accompanied the meal.

A Richmond Times-Dispatch article from 1906 documents a June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia, celebration as the first time a Civil War veteran’s grave was decorated. In 1862, there is another recorded example of an early Civil War grave decoration which occurred in Savannah, Georgia. In 1863, there was a decoration of soldiers’ graves in Gettysburg.

Decoration of graves became widespread after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. There were, at this point, over 600,000 American soldiers in the ground. This gave what was a previously existing informal ritual a new significance. It was this year that the federal government began making a national cemetery for the Union war dead. Despite this, the celebrations were primarily a Southern thing.

How Memorial Day Became “Official”

In 1966, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared there to be an “official” first celebration of Memorial Day. The resolution stated that the first Memorial Day was in 1866, in Waterloo, New York, celebrated at the behest of druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray. This “official” foundation story of Memorial Day has largely been discredited as a myth. 25 towns currently claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

More attested to as the first Memorial Day celebration in the North is the May 5, 1868, proclamation by General John A. Logan calling for a nationwide “Decoration Day.” He simply adopted the previously existing ceremonies of the American South and transplanted them to the Northern States. The first Memorial Day celebrated in the North took place on May 30, 1868. It is said that the date was chosen because it did not align with any particular battle, thus neither side could be seen as engaging in triumphalism.

The new holiday spread like wildfire throughout the Northern states. In the first year of the official Memorial Day, 27 states observed ceremonies in 127 cemeteries. This ballooned to 336 cemeteries by the next year. In 1871, Michigan became the first state after the original 27 to make it an official holiday. By 1890, it was an official holiday in every Northern state. The popularity of the holiday led to the reinterment of almost 300,000 Northern war dead in national cemeteries.

A new American mythology arose because of the celebration of this new holiday. For example, German and Irish Americans who had participated in the war were considered to be “Americans by blood” due to their sacrifice. There were honest and open discussions of wartime atrocities. The purpose of these discussions was to provide context for the war and what was gained as well as what was lost, not merely sulking around in unpleasant memories.

Ceremonies and Celebrations of Memorial Day

In the 1880s, the ceremonies became much more standardized. This is largely due to the efforts of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization for Union soldiers. Pamphlets with rituals, Bible verses and poems were distributed to local post commanders. Many of these were the “go to” ceremonies for Memorial Day, at least in the Northern states.

The Southern states, of course, had a slightly different take on the dead of the Civil War and how best to honor them. Their ceremonies tended to be simpler, more somber, less celebratory and honored both the Union and Confederate dead.

In the South, it was women who took the lead with Memorial Day celebration. The Ladies Memorial Association made it their charge to ensure that Confederate memorials were kept up and decorated on Memorial Day. Out of this grew the Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose numbers quickly grew from 17,000 in 1900 to almost 100,000 by the start of the First World War. 1868 was the first documented case of Southrons attempting to add “Confederate” to the beginning of the name of the day. By 1890, the American nationalist elements were firmly in the saddle, even in former Confederate states.

While many will complain that Memorial Day is not a day for barbecuing and drinking beer, this observation goes back to at least 1913. The Grand Army of the Republic opposed a Memorial Day race in the year 1911. However, they were increasingly elderly and had less power than they had even 20 years prior. Ironically, the race the GAR opposed is one of the biggest Memorial Day traditions still going – the Indianapolis 500.

In 1950, Congress passed a resolution calling on the nation to observe Memorial Day as a day of prayer for perpetual peace. In 1971, it finally became an official federal holiday. In 2000, President Bill Clinton codified the 3 p.m. observance time that had already been a popular time for remembering our war dead. The President requests that flags on government property be flown at half mast until noon, however this is not legally mandated. Some Southern states still celebrate a day specifically dedicated to remembering the Confederate war dead, but this does not fall on the same day as Memorial Day – in the case of Texas’ “Heroes Day,” it falls several months away from Memorial Day in January.

More to the point of the holiday’s origins, there is a remembrance every year at 3 p.m. local time. If you’re looking to honor the nation’s veterans, look into whatever local celebrations might be available to you.

Memorial Day: The Forgotten History of America’s Memorial Day and What It Commemorates originally appeared in The Resistance Library at Ammo.com.

10 Likes

8 Likes

Like Christian Holy Days its been discolored, be sure to prep an article for VOC day in Nov
its been more than discolored

8 Likes

Star Spangled Banner as you’ve never heard it

9 Likes

In my world it’s a day of family history and flowers. I’ll spend hours gathering, arranging, and placing fresh flowers at the graves of ancestors, some of these flowers being descendants of the same flowers they grew in their homestead gardens. Some of the day will be in sad reflection of the loss of this tradition, the loss of the generations before me whose stories became part of history for me and the lack of younger generations eager to hear those stories repeated.
I can’t remember a Memorial day with my Grandfather that didn’t have a story or talk about his childhood friend that died at the Bulge. Groups of men gathered at picnic tables eating and drinking beer after the days ceremony. All of them, men that had known him, men that had been there, to a man they cursed the names of the generals they saw as responsible for his death, nobody questioned their patriotism, nobody questioned their truth…except of course the history book in school.

10 Likes

Thank you for reminding me about that. I’ll mention this idea to our writer, and see if he’d like to pair an article with a podcast.

10 Likes

Deo Vindice

8 Likes
9 Likes

This is a couple of years old but still relevant.

7 Likes
7 Likes

For our friends down under:

6 Likes
7 Likes

TMC has been showing nothing but old war movies. Some very obscure like “Hell to Eternity” about a (white) boy adopted by japanese before wwii.
I am by no means even a history buff when it comes to the war as i cannot remember too much for too long anymore, but during the movie he mentions to a buddy that his brothers are tearing through europe in the 442!
(they rescued the famous “lost battalion” in the Vogeses mountains)

I’m not sure this is the one i saw or not:

7 Likes

7 Likes
              The Battlefield Cross

The rifle is affixed with a bayonet and inverted, signifying that the Soldier went down fighting. The boots signify the Soldier’s last march onto the battlefield. Dog tags are imprinted with the Soldier’s name and hung from the rifle so their identity will never be forgotten. The helmet is placed atop the rifle representing what the Soldier stood for and signifying that their battle is now over. The Battlefield Cross is a sacred symbol amongst military members. Since a funeral is typically not possible during wartime, these symbols serve as a rallying point where surviving members of a unit can mourn and remember their fallen comrades. This Memorial Day, reach out to the Veterans that you know and give them a simple message : “We Remember.” We remember our Country’s fallen, your brother and sisters, and we appreciate and honor their sacrifice.

8 Likes