The Tangled Roots of Memorial Day and Why It’s Celebrated

Memorial Day weekend is the busiest and unofficial start to summer for travel in the United States. A day for cooking, beach trips and auto races. But how did Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday in May to commemorate the American war dead, begin?

Here’s a brief refresher:

The holiday grew out of the Civil War, as Americans — North, South, black and white — struggled to honor the staggering number of soldiers who died, which at the time made up at least 2 percent of the U.S. population. Many places claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Comes from one of the earliest accounts Bolsburg, Pa.where in October 1864 three women are said to have placed flowers and wreaths on the graves of men who died serving the Union during the Civil War.

Soon after the end of the war in May 1865, a large procession was held in the devastated city. Charleston, SC There, thousands of black Americans, many of whom were enslaved until the city was freed just months earlier, commemorated the lives of Union captives buried in a mass grave at a former racetrack. The service was led by about 3,000 school children carrying roses and singing the Union Marching Song. “The Body of John Brown.” According to historical accounts, hundreds of women followed him with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.

Cities in the north and south began paying homage to their war dead. In May 1866 Waterloo, NY, according to the village, was decorated with flags “draped in the black of evergreen and mourning”. I Columbus, Miss.That same year, women are said to have placed flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.

Whatever its origins, historians agree that the first mass commemoration took place in 1868, when General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, called for a national holiday to remember the Civil War dead. He said that their bodies are lying in almost every town, village and church.

May 30, Mr. Logan wrote in a Order, “Should be designated for the purpose of decorating with flowers the anthem or the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”

For many years, the commemoration was widely referred to as “Decoration Day.” But as it evolved to honor not just Civil War soldiers, but all soldiers who fell while serving the country, Americans began to refer to the day as such. “Memorial Day.” The New York Times has published an article in the first references to the memorial. On 7 June 1868 It describes a note, accompanied by a wreath, in which “a little girl of about 10 years of age” requests that an officer lay a wreath at the grave of an unknown rebel soldier. Is. Her father, she explained, was buried in Andersonville, Ga., and she hoped “some little girl” would do the same at his grave.

A 1908 postcard possibly featuring General Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee shaking…Getty Images

Another article published. On 31 May 1870 Describes processions in New York City and Brooklyn (then separate cities), among other places. Apart from Independence Day, there was no other day that showed the patriotic feelings of our people more than ‘Remembrance Day’, which the article said was a national holiday and not a national holiday. by an Act of the Legislature, but “by the general consent of the people.”

Congress formally renamed the monument in 1967. A few years later, the government decreed that Remembrance Day should not be celebrated on May 30, but on the last Monday of that month.

The change was part of a broader effort to create a three-day weekend, said Sarah Wexel, director of research and publications for the American Historical Association: “They wanted it to be an opportunity for people to gather.”

Although Memorial Day has evolved, it is a day to pay tribute to the nation’s warriors. Veterans Day, however, honors anyone who has served in the U.S. military.

Veterans Day, celebrated annually on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I in 1918. Widened in the 1950s. Inclusion of all veterans.

Both holidays honor those who have served the country, and the way they are commemorated now may seem similar. But, after World War I, veterans “wanted a memorial of their own, one that North and South could celebrate together,” wrote Henry W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, via email.

Nearly 160 years after the end of the American Civil War, the true origins of Memorial Day are still unclear, experts say. But the black history of the holiday is not universally accepted. In 2021, a veteran’s microphone attempted to give credit to black Americans. Became silent During an American Legion service in Hudson, Ohio.

“Charleston forgot the story because it didn’t fit the emerging narrative in the defeated South,” said David W. Blight, a historian at Yale University. In the 1990s, he uncovered its details Race course procession, which took place in a place that was once popular with planters. Of the black marchers, he added, “they were rewriting it as a place to commemorate their freedom.”

According to Dr. Blight, white southerners used Memorial Day to perpetuate their Lost Cause mythology, the idea that the rebellion was a dignified revolt against Northern oppression that had little or nothing to do with slavery.

The notion that both sides of the war fought for a greater cause was early rejected by Frederick Douglass, who said at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1871: “We must never forget that “The victory of rebellion means the death of the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest under that gallows have thrust themselves between the nation and the destroyers of the nation.”

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