It was the expression those in the southern states called the Civil War, but a “War Between the States” still rages on about where the national holiday which resulted from that bloody conflict first started.
In fact, just like the dispute over who deserves credit for that other anticipated three-day weekend, Labor Day, which marks the end of summer, there is a dispute over credit for originating the three-day weekend of Memorial Day which marks the start of it. Six states lay claim to the title of “birthplace of Memorial Day,” all pointing to events which occured before the official public declaration calling for the holiday.
Just three years after the Civil War ended, former Union Army general John A. Logan called for the entire re-united nation to remember those killed in the Civil War on May 30, 1868 by “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”There’s a dispute about why he chose May 30. Some say it was because there was no Civil War battle that took place on that day.
Others say it was because it was determined to be the peak day of the day for flowers to bloom.
Sure enough, twenty-seven states responded by holding Decoration Day ceremonies in almost two-hundred cemeteries. Some five thousand people showed up at Arlington National Cemetery to decorate the graves of about 20,000 men killed in the Civil War.
By 1871, Michigan became the first to make Decoration Day a state holiday. By 1882, the name of the holiday was changed to “Memorial Day,” many feeling that the word “decoration” suggested frivolity. By 1890, every northern state had made Memorial Day a state holiday.To that time, many southern states still viewed Memorial Day as one intended to honor the Union Army soldiers and maintained their own Confederate Memorial Day on the June 3 birthdate of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Southerner women played a central role in the establishment of the holiday.
With so many Civil War battles taking place in southern states, there were often thousands of rotting corpses left out to the elements.
Local groups of women took it upon themselves to bury the individuals with dignity and respect, marking the graves and leaving a sign of fleeting life upon them – flowers.When both northerners and southerners were killed together in the Spanish-American War, and then World War I, however, the entire country began marking Memorial Day in unison, on May 30 (some southerners also continued to hold their separate June event)
It was in 1915, right before World War I that the tradition of passing out real (and then artificial) red poppy flowers.It was Moina Michael who was inspired by a famous World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae ( “In Flanders fields the poppies blow…Between the crosses, row on row.”) to begin wearing a silk red poppy flower and then sell them to raise funds for the care of wounded vets, eventually making it the official symbol of Memorial Day.
The 1970s saw the shift in perception of Memorial Day from one of sadness and flowers to one of summer and barbeques, reflecting not just the national ambivalence shown towards many returning Vietnam War but also the 1971 when the National Holiday Act moved it from May 30 to the last Monday in May. Efforts to move it back to May 30 have failed.
The very reason there is a Memorial Day may now, sadly, seem more relevant than it did by the end of the 20th century, given the thousands of American servicemen and women killed in the recent Iraqi War and ongoing Afghanistan War.
Rather than being a quaint bit of old Americana, the Memorial Day parades in mostly small towns across the country are now less about people who like to dress up in Civil War period clothes and sentimentally imagine the brave old soldiers in the Union blue or Confederate gray.
Now, well into the early 21st century, Memorial Day is increasingly about remembering men and women killed in Kabul in 2004 or Baghdad in 2006, most of them not yet even thirty years of age and whose deaths forever shattered the lives of husbands, wives, children, siblings, parents, partners and friends.If it’s human nature to never forget the loved ones lost in war, it’s also human nature to argue about just where the first organized effort to remember and honor them took place. Or what type of flowers are appropriate. Or how to remember those people we claim were the first to do the remembering of Memorial Day. Perhaps getting caught up in the details to make the case for this state or against that state is part of the distraction which is often necessary to relieve the living from thinking too much about the dead.And so, in that grand old tradition of warring between the states is the one concerned with which deserves credit for originating what became a national holiday, each of them preceeding General Logan’s decree.
The town of Warrenton, Virginia claims that its June 3, 1861 Memorial Day is the first and earliest. The documentation, however, forty-five years after the fact in a July 15, 1906 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Just two months after the Civil War began, a Captain John Quincy Marr was killed at a skirmish in Fairfax Courthouse on June 1, 1861.Two days later, his remains were returned to his hometown of Warrenton and he was buried in the local graveyard, “wept over by the old and young; flowers strewn on his grave.”
A month later the first great and bloodiest Civil War battle, “the battle of Manassass,” left thousansd of Confederate troops killed or mortally wounded. Local women and children did their best to help treat the wounds of those still alive while also digging ditches and burying the dead bodies in the same Warrenton burial ground where Marr had been laid to rest a month earlier.With little time to do much more, they simply placed long wood boards over the burial ditches, marked with some names of those who’s identities were known. Some young teenage boys soon noticing that the names which had been spelled out on the boards were fading, then took it upon themselves to cut individual wood squares and stencil on the names.
In winter, two years later, Union Army troops advanced there and burned many of the wood grave markers to build fires and keep warm.
As one old-timer told it, “as soon as the spring flowers came, we placed the blossoms on these graves, and each year continued our memorial work.” After the Civil War, the bones of those buried were placed into a common grave over which a monument was erected with the inscription, ‘Virginia’s Daughters to Virginia’s Defenders.”
As documented in the Savannah Republican newspaper on July 21, 1862, it was on the anniversary of the Battle of Manassas that a group of local women gathered and went to the Laurel Grove Cemetery “and commemorated the day by appropriately decorating the graves.” The newspaper encouraged the women to make this an annual event on the same day each year: “It is a fit task for noble woman, and we hope her patriotism and love for the dear departed will move her annually to lay these beautiful tributes on the resting places of the brave.”Laurel Grove Cemetery, from its beginnings, was both inclusive and restrictive.
urial grounds were created for all people, but segregated by race, religion and socieconomic status, there being four division, the Old Cemetery for white people of means, the Old Jewish Cemetery for non-Christian white people of means, the Old Negro Cemetery for both enslaved and free African-Americans, and Potter’s Field, for people of all races and religions who were poor.
It is largely by oral tradition that the town of Boalsburg lays claim to the right to call itself birthplace of Memorial Day.
Boalsburg, however, now has a statue to “prove” its claim, showing the three women who are credited with conceiving it.
Sometime in October of 1864, one Emma Hunter came to the graveyard of the local Zion Lutheran Church. Accompanied by her young friend Sophie Kelly, she was carrying some sort of flower which bloomed in autumn to place on the grave of her father, physician Reuben Hunter. He had not been kiilled in the nearby battle of Gettysburg, but rather died of yellow fever while treating wounded soldiers. When she got there she met fellow local resident Elizabeth Meyer, who was putting down some posies on the grave of her son Amos Meyer, who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg in service of the Union Army. They talked a bit and before they left, both vowed to each other to return the following year to remember not only their lost father and son but those other soldiers killed in the war who had no family or friends to honor them. In the months after they first met the women told a lot of fellow church parishioners, neighbors, family members and friends. Apparently, the entire town soon became enthusiastic about the idea; by the time they gathered on July 4, 1864 (although one version of the story claims that they had intended to return a year from the day they initially met), there was a formal ceremony, with a sermon and an all-out community effort which ensured that not one of the graves of fallen soldiers in the Zion Lutheran Cemetery lacked for a flag and flowers. It has remained an annual custom, though now celebrated on the national Memorial Day, including a walk to the original cemetery where the Boalsburg women first met – and are now honored with a statue.
South Carolina, 1865:
It was a famous track where wealthy, white families came to watch the horse races and bet but during the Civil War, the Charleston Race Course was turned into an open-air prison camp by Confederates. Some 250 Union soldiers held there would languish and die from exposure.
As the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, the bodies of the Union soldiers were dumped into a mass grave. Sometime between April 16 and April 30, however, in gratitude for their liberation from slavery, hundreds of recently freed African-Americans dug individual graves for the men and reburied each with dignity.
They landscaped the site, and placed a white picket fence around the graves and an entrance arch which read “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
On “May Day,” May 1, an estimated ten thousand people, black and white, gathered together for a memorial service to honor the buried Union soldiers. A New York Tribune reporter who witnessed the event recorded, “At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing ‘John Brown’s Body.’ The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.”
After ministers blessed the graveyard with solemn prayers. missionaries made speeches, a children’s choir sang Union Army rallying songs, and others sang African-American spirituals, the crowd watched a military drill by a brigade of Union Army infantry, including the 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops. When it was all over, they sat down on the open lawn to enjoy the very first known Memorial Day picnic.When the cemetery fell into disrepair by 1871, the buried soldiers were re-interred in the nearby towns of Beaufort and Florence, in recently-established national cemeteries. Today, the site of what South Carolina claims as the first Memorial Day is known as Hampton Park.
On April 25, 1866, women of Columbus, Mississippi entered the local Friendship Cemetery and there laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate Army soldiers. The town was best known during the Civil War for its storehouse of weaponry to cause potential mass death and mortal wounds and for its ability to heal it, having an arsenal which produced gunpowder, cannons and handguns and a large number of well-equipped facilities serving as hospitals.
A large number of Confederate and Union soldiers badly wounded at the Battle of Shiloh were transported here. Those that did not survive their wounds were brought with those killed in battle to be buried at the local Friendship Cemetery. Once the conflict had ceased and peace was declared, a group of local women organized and committed to decorating with flowers the graves of not only Confederate but Union soldiers.The event took place on April 25, 1866. By coincidence the poet Francis Miles Finch was passing through Columbus abnd stopped to witness the event, later immortalized in his poem, “The Blue and the Grey.”
New York, 1866
The claim to originating Memorial Day by the Empire State rests on the fact that the town of Waterloo, New York was the first to observe a form of a memorial day that was “considered so well planned and complete.”The Waterloo case claims that several months after the end of the Civil War, as Union Army soldiers were proceeding home northward, a local pharmacist Henry C. Wells mused to some friends that along with heaping praise on the returning veterans, people should also remember the soldiers who weren’t so lucky but who had been killed in the war. Their graves should be covered in flowers each year. Nothing happened.
That winter, Wells again raised the idea, this time with a Union veterans, General John B. Murray who immediately took to it and formed a local planning committee.Months later, on May 5, 1866 General Murray led a somber parade through Waterloo, its streets marked by flags at half-mast in honor of the dead, hung with black mourning crepe and evergreen wreaths, all part of the Victorian ritual of mourning.
As a preceeding band played funeral dirges the various civic groups dispersed through the town’s three cemeteries to decorate the graves of recently-buried Union soldiers there.
They repeated it all a year later but in 1868 they followed the edict of General Logan and began celebrating Decoration Day on May 30.A century after their initial day of events, Waterloo was given the stamp of officialdom when President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation which read, “Resolved that the Congress of the United States, in recognition of the patriotic tradition set in motion one hundred years ago in the Village of Waterloo, NY, does hereby officially recognize Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.”
They even have a Memorial Day Museum to prove it.
Historians and regional purists may continue to debate just what part of the continguous land designated by an artificial boundary known as a state line should get credit for simply conceiving an organized way to bring together people grieving for their loved ones who were killed, however right or wrong the cause may have been in the eyes of those who willingly sacrificed their lives.
Over a million American men and women have been killed in wars. None of them know or care where they are buried or where the tradition of honoring them began.
It is the living who give meaning to Memorial Day. An understanding of its origins may wax and wane over the decades, depending on what each succeeding generation has experienced in terms of military service in wartime. It has always been a mix of solemnity and relaxation. Perhaps no musical work better manages to capture the paradoxical nature of this day than the symphonic poem Decoration Day, by composer Charles Ives, in which the sounds of the chilling “Taps” on the way to the cemetery is overtaken by the buoyant beat of a band as the living retreat from the dead and return to life. Here it is:
The duality of human beings all living while all simultaneoously dying, whether in war or peace is one of those ineffable but discomforting facts often brought to the fore by Memorial Day.
Once the flowers have been laid, the tears shed, the prayers and praise for bravery said, the dead remain silent in the ground while the mourners turn their backs and leave them, going on to eat barbeque lunch, march in or watch a parade, listen to band music and move forward with the privilege of life. They honor their dead with flowers, but perhaps don’t quite grasp that fighting against the very idea of war can be the highest form of respect with which they can honor those killed and now gone.
- SmartSign Commemorates Men and Women in the Armed Forces This Memorial Day (smartsign.com)
- Memorial Day Challenge (giftstogo.wordpress.com)
- Memorial Day (worldwariidaughters.org)
- Speaking of lilacs (themorningsun.com)
- Fun Facts About Memorial Day (kzcabins.com)
- What Is Memorial Day? (praiserichmond.com)
- Memorial Day (montyrainey.wordpress.com)
- The Memorial Day “Common-Sense” Safety Guide (simplisafe.com)