It is the unofficial start of summer; beaches open, some of us think of auto racing, and we hope for suitable weather for a barbecue. Memorial Day is upon us, and its national observance is 150 years old this year, the holiday Americans once called Decoration Day.
The veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic issued the call to honor those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the recently concluded Civil War, “Let us at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flower of Spring time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor” and pledge to assist their widows and orphans. Since it came from the GAR, a disciplined organization of Union veterans with many local posts, the suggestion for May 30, 1868 was widely observed.
This ancient practice of floral decoration of burial places seemed to take hold spontaneously as the Civil War battlefields and prison camps yielded their massive casualties in many areas of the United States. Communities in Carbondale, Illinois, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Columbus, Mississippi, Columbus, Georgia, Belle Isle in Richmond, Virginia, and Waterloo, New York all make legitimate claims to have begun the tradition a few years before 1868. We don’t attempt to weigh the various claims of origin here, but common in many of the early observances was the role of women in taking the initiative, gathering the flowers, and honoring both the Confederate and Federal war dead in their graveside tributes. Most recent research by Richard Gardiner and Daniel Bellware credibly trace the holiday’s origins to the “Confederate Memorial Day” observed in Columbus, Georgia beginning in April 1866. It is a suitable practice, the New York Telegram remarked in April 1869, “though it did originate in the South during the late war, and is one of the few of the rebel ideas that engrafted itself upon our blunted affections.”
The reporters present at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia that day in May 1868 reminded us that the graves occupied the grounds of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s manor. Several Union generals attended to hear one of their own, future President James A. Garfield, give the featured address. Ulysses Grant was there with his daughter, the newspapers noted, but, in keeping with the avoidance of partisanship, no mention was made that he had been nominated for president some ten days earlier. Unity was stressed, as the New York Tribune stated, “so Protestant and Catholic, Jew and Gentile, joined hand and hand [sic] above the mounds, and laid sweet offerings upon a common altar. All over the land from Maine to Florida, tears and flowers fell on the graves of heroes and martyrs.”
Newspaper accounts and diaries suggest that the idea of a national Decoration Day caught on immediately, but the first anniversary, May 30, 1869, had the misfortune of being rainy in the Northeast and on a Sunday where a considerable portion of the population did not want to disturb the Christian Sabbath.
Within two years, the term “Memorial Day” was beginning to be used by the Grand Army of the Republic and the public at large. By the 20th century–and certainly after World War I–the annual tribute was extended to the soldiers and sailors who had died in all American wars. As part of the drive to convert federal holidays to Mondays, Congress placed it on the final Monday in May beginning in 1971. The original May 30th date had likely been chosen as a time when flowers would be in bloom both in North and South.
These accounts of the first Decoration Days poignantly detail the presence of war orphans in the ceremonies and speak of the “mounds” at the cemeteries, reminding us that the graves were fresh. It is inevitable that pain and memories erode for those not directly touched, and so, as early as 1869, the New York Times was asking, “What is the lesson to be at the outset regarding its future celebrations? It surely is to keep ever in mind the original purpose of the day, as signified by its very name.” Should it ever be less about floral tribute and more about pomp, dinners, and oratory, this celebration will become “not a sacred but a sacrilegious one.”
Holidays in the United States inevitably morph into days of relaxation, recreation, and commerce, but we can hope that some of the “original purpose of the day” remains in this year’s commemoration.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections