The History of Memorial Day

I haven’t done a history lesson in a while, so I figured we’re overdue.

Yesterday was Memorial Day here in the United States. Most people I know treat it as a free 3-day weekend. Others think of it as the unofficial start of summer. And others still think of it as a way to honor all soldiers. The first two aren’t necessarily wrong (the last one absolutely is though), but I believe it’s important to understand the actual history behind it and what it means.

Between 1861 an 1865, the United States was fighting against itself in the Civil War. There was the Union in the North and the Confederates in the South. The Southerners wanted to own slaves, and the government was beginning to crack down on it, which the South opposed. There were other reasons as well, but one of the largest ones boils down to states being able to own slaves. What followed was eleven states seceding and declaring themselves the Confederacy. The brutal war that begin in April 1861 wore down the South to the point that surrender was the best option in April 1865.

A lot of the time, the men were the ones who were on the front lines. While they were away, it was up to the women and children to maintain the farm and keep things going. The Civil War was the most brutal conflict in American history, with about 620,000 people who died as a direct result.1

With that many who did not make it home, there were lots of newly placed graves and cemeteries all over the country. One of the first remembrances of the soldiers who fought in the war occurred on May 1, 1865. Former freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, hosted a gathering. This gathering was specifically to properly bury Union soldiers and pay them tribute for the things they had done.2

The following year, 1866, Southern women in Columbus, Georgia, decorated graves. However, they did not just decorate the Confederate graves. They also decorated graves of Union soldiers. Word quickly got around about what these women, and other women in the South, had done to honor the soldiers. Many newspapers, including Northern ones, praised these women for their generosity.

Not everyone felt this way, however. After all, the country had just been ruined and scarred by a bloody war. A judge and a poet by the name of Francis Miles Finch published a poem called “The Blue and the Gray”. It was published and republished frequently in almost every newspaper of the country, so that even those who were opposed to forgiving the South were at least familiar with the concept of Memorial Day by 1867.3

The following year, 1868, General John A. Logan (commander-in-chief for the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)) called for “Decoration Day” to be observed nationwide. Many states quickly adopted the holiday that stemmed from the freed slaves and Confederate women. Logan’s celebration was celebrated in early May because it was not the anniversary of any battle, and flowers were starting to bloom to then be planted on or near gravesites.4

New York was the first state to declare Memorial Day as a legal holiday in 1873. Other states followed suit and the idea continued to spread. However, if you know any history at all, you know that the Civil War was not the last war that the United States fought. As time went on and the World Wars and Korea passed, the idea of Memorial Day came to encompass all American soldiers who were killed in combat, not just Civil War soldiers. It was not until 1971 that Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act denoting that Memorial Day be observed on the last Monday in May.5

Memorial Day is not a day to honor all soldiers. Memorial Day is specifically for those who have died in combat. That, to me, also includes those who died by suicide. Even though they still made it home, they were still on the front lines in their mind. If you want to honor current soldiers, then do that by either celebrating Armed Forces Day or the specific day to honor each branch. If you want to honor soldiers who are no longer fighting or who have died long after a war (maybe grandparents or something), then celebrate Veteran’s Day. While Memorial Day is used to mark the unofficial start of summer, take a moment and remember what it is really about.

Sources:

  1. https://www.history.com/news/american-civil-war-deaths#:~:text=For%20more%20than%20a%20century,deaths%20and%20258%2C000%20Confederate%20deaths.
  2. https://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/memorial-day/history/
  3. https://kansasreflector.com/2022/05/30/the-forgotten-history-of-memorial-day-grew-up-in-aftermath-of-civil-war/#:~:text=The%20holiday%20was%20Memorial%20Day,nation%20honors%20its%20military%20dead.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day
  5. https://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/memorial-day/history/

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