The origin of Memorial Day

For many Americans, Memorial Day¬†weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer and an opportunity to gather with family and friends. For veterans and their families, it is a day of rememberance for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country. As we head into the holiday weekend, we wanted to share with you a piece written by the Air Force’s Stephen K. Robinson on the origins of Memorial Day (formerly known as Decoration Day).

Post written by Stephen K. Robinson, 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office

Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colo. (Official Department of Veterans Affairs photograph)

Decoration Day commemorates U.S. men and women who have died while serving in the military. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War – celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War – it was expanded after World War I.

Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating early Decoration Day observances include Sharpsburg, Maryland, located near Antietam Battlefield; Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Petersburg, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns across the United States. These observances coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days.

There are many stories as to the actual origin of Decoration Day, with more than two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Decoration Day, as it was originally called. There is evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

While Waterloo, N.Y., was officially declared the birthplace of Decoration Day, by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, nearly one hundred years after its inception, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860’s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead. Each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated when Gen. John Logan, Grand Army of the Republic commander-in-chief, issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance.

According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first Memorial Day was observed by formerly enslaved black people at the Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston, South Carolina. The race course had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp in 1865 as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, formerly enslaved people exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them properly with individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. The work was completed in only ten days. On May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2,800 children, proceeded to the location for a celebration which included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General Logan in his 11th General Order, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South did not acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May – passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 to ensure a three-day weekend for Federal holidays – though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were relatively few veterans of the Union Army who were buried in the South. A notable exception was Columbus, Mississippi, which on April 25, 1866, at its Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery.

The alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday, now celebrated as Presidents’ Day; Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.

In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red that grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies that blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.

Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael. When she returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries, and in 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the Veterans of Foreign Wars for help.

Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later, their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the U.S. Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.

There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 1950’s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24-hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.

In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis, Mo., began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights.

In 2004, Washington D.C., held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed in December 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m., local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”

The Moment of Remembrance is a step to return the meaning back to the day: set aside one day out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all in service to their country.

But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date, merely to create three-day weekends, has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

On January 19, 1999, Sen. Dan Inouye¬†introduced Senate Bill 189 that proposed to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of “the last Monday in May.” On April 19, 1999, Rep. Jaret Gibbons introduced House Resolution 1474. The bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Reform.

Today, many Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor Day as the unofficial end of the season.

Memorial Day is also used as a time for picnics, barbecues, family gatherings, and sporting events. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. The Coca-Cola 600 has been held later the same day, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte, S.C., since 1961.

The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the Nation’s Capitol. Music is performed and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

Many people observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the United States flag at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at National Cemeteries.

Memorial Day is a day for remembering those who have died in our nation’s service, not just a day that provides a long weekend for vacations. It is not important who first honored our veterans, but rather that we do honor them today. Memorial Day is not about division, it is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all, for us.

This post was originally published on the Edwards Air Force Base website.

Comments

comments

Tags: , , , , , , , ,


One Response

  1. Lisa Saltzman says:

    So do we honor the fallen coast guard as well on Memorial day?