Monday, May 26, 2008

(General John A. Logan
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-B8172- 6403 DLC (b&w film neg.)])

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also 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" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and 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 in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 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 refused to 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 (P.L. 90 - 363) 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.

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.

(Taken from Memorial Day History)


willow said...

This was a great post, Rebecca. I was just thinking about this last night. American Experience ran a piece on Harry Truman and they mentioned that Memorial Day started after the Civil War, but that's about all I knew.

steviewren said...

Thanks, I didn't know the history of the holiday.

Decoration Day is what many old country churches still celebrate in the South as a time to honor loved ones who have passed. They clean up the old church cemeteries and put flowers on all the graves. This usually takes place after Sunday services and a potluck lunch on the grounds. Sadly, some of these traditions are becoming a thing of the past.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

Isn't it interesting how there was a collective sense, in many different places, to honour the fallen. A mass meeting of the minds; I think there are theories about that sort of thing. Finally it all culminated in one nationally recognized day, as you said, to come together, and pay tribute to those who fought so valiantly.

Dee Dee said...

Rebecca, Very nice post...I was so pleased with all the focus placed on Memorial Day, throughout our nation yesterday..On every television channel, old war movies or tributes of some kind. We watched Glory once again very late last evening...So I am feeling very grateful to live in this great free nation today...

Rebecca said...

Hello all,

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I was always under the impression that Memorial Day started after WWI so this was really enlightening.

Mmm said...

I have to confess that i get confused with Memorial and Veteran's Days. I liked in England just having Remembrance Sunday to honour the fallen and those who have served. Regardless, it's a good thing. I only wish we wore poppies here too.

Thanks for the history too. I love learning about such things.

Rebecca said...

MMM, it's easy to get them confused...Sadly, I do that with Labor Day as well and I have no idea why!....