National Holiday Observance Series
Every year, like clockwork, Memorial Day comes around as the first “warm weather” three-day weekend holiday. People look forward to getting together, firing up the grill, attending or participating in parades, and unofficially kicking off the summer with the opening of many public pools. For many, the more somber aspect of the holiday weighs heavy as gravesites and memorials of fallen soldiers are visited with the placement of flowers and flags, the saying of prayers and moments of silence. In researching this holiday, I found a fascinating history which has given me a broader perspective and appreciation.
Timeline & Evolution of Observance
While today, we recognize all soldiers who died serving our country in any war, this has not always been the case. Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), began to specifically honor the 600,000 - 800,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War (1861 - 1865) “in the single bloodiest military conflict in American history” (Roos). The following timeline traces the history of this revered holiday.
1865 — Less than a month after the Confederates surrendered, a large gathering of freed slaves held an observance:
When Charleston fell and Confederate troops evacuated the badly damaged city, those freed from enslavement remained. One of the first things those emancipated men and women did was to give the fallen Union prisoners a proper burial. They exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And then on May 1, 1865, something even more extraordinary happened…a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves with some white missionaries, staged a parade around the race track. Three thousand Black schoolchildren carried bouquets of flowers and sang “John Brown’s Body.” Members of the famed 54th Massachusetts and other Black Union regiments were in attendance and performed double-time marches. Black ministers recited verses from the Bible (Roos through Blight research).
1868 — General John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, headquartered in Washington, D.C., issued a proclamation known as his Memorial Day Order on May 5 (General Order 11). In it, he stated:
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance…Let us, then at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
On May 30 of that same year, the first national commemoration was held at Arlington Cemetery where both Union and Confederate soldiers were buried.
Late 1860s — towns and cities began holding their own ceremonial tributes for the fallen Civil War soldiers by decorating their graves and through prayers.
1873 - 1890 —All of the Northern states recognized Memorial Day (Decoration Day). The Southern states refused, choosing instead to honor their dead through separate occasions.
Post WWI (1915) - 1918 — Approximately 30 years later, the Southern states began recognizing Decoration Day as the focus of the commemoration shifted from specifically honoring the Civil War dead to an expansion that included honoring Americans who fought and died in any war. This was also the year that Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae penned the poem “In Flander’s Fields.” In 1918, inspired by this poem, Moina Michael wrote a response poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” and her idea to wear the red poppy on that day launched the flower as the symbol for Memorial Day (Crosby).
1966 — A full 100 years after the town of Waterloo, New York first celebrated the day, it was declared the official birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
1968 - 1971 — The passing of the National Holiday Act (P.L. 90-363) changed observance of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Around this time, several Southern states set aside additional days to honor the Confederate dead: Texas (January 1); Alabama, Florida and Georgia (April 26); South Carolina (May 10); and Louisiana and Tennessee (June 3).
Of the most commonly known activities that mark this occasion are the family gatherings, picnics, barbecues, and visits to gravesites to place flags and flowers and pray for those fallen service members. The day starts with the American flag flown at half-staff until 12:00 noon at which point the flag is raised to full staff. Ceremonial parades of all sizes are held across the nation and poppies are bought and worn or displayed. The National Moment of Remembrance occurs at 3:00 p.m., local time. In the age of technology, many television, radio, and internet channels and hosts broadcast special programs to continue historical remembrance of why we celebrate this day.
Today, the respite of an extended weekend, the commercialization of holiday sales and discounts, and the unofficial start of summer with the opening of many public pools seem to overshadow the true meaning of the occasion. However, there are so many prominent displays that keep the tradition of honoring now millions of service members throughout our country’s history who made the ultimate sacrifice in doing their duty to defend our great nation and protect our God-given liberty. Whatever the activities, the solemn ones honor that sacrifice while the happier ones celebrate the ability to live on as a free people in testament to that sacrifice.
Helpful Resources & Information:
Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies Held By Free Slaves (Dave Roos)
Arlington National Cemetery: 8 Surprising Facts (Christopher Klein)
Race & Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (David W. Blight)
9 Things You May Not Know About Memorial Day (Barbara Maranzani)
The Significance of Poppies (Cassandra Crosby) — also includes the two poems cited above
8 Moving Memorial Day Prayers (Kelly Roper, Tamsen Butler)
The History and Origin of Memorial Day in Waterloo, New York