Memorial Day weekend is among the busiest for travel in the United States and the unofficial start of summer; a day for barbecues, trips to the beach and car races. But how did Memorial Day come about, held on the last Monday in May in honor of America’s fallen?
Here is a quick review:
Honoring the fallen of the Civil War
The holiday was born out of the Civil War, as Americans — North, South, Black and White — struggled to honor the staggering number of soldiers who died, at least 2 percent of the US population at the time. Several places claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. It comes from an early account Bolsburg, Pa.where, in October 1864, three women are said to have laid flowers and wreaths on the graves of men who had died serving the Union during the Civil War.
In May 1865, just after the war ended, a large procession was held in the ruined city of Charleston, South Carolina. There, thousands of black Americans, many of whom had been enslaved until the city’s liberation a few months earlier , commemorated the lives of prisoners buried in a mass grave in a former racecourse. The service was led by some 3,000 schoolchildren carrying roses and singing the Union March Song « John Brown’s Body ». Hundreds of women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses, according to historical accounts.
Cities in the north and south began to honor their war dead. In May 1866, Waterloo, New York, was decorated with flags at half-mast, « draped evergreen and black in mourning, » according to the village. In Columbus, miss.that same year, women were said to have laid flowers on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers.
What’s in a name?
Whatever its beginning, historians agree that the first widely held commemoration was in 1868, when Gen. John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, has called a national holiday to remember the dead of the Civil War. Their bodies, he said, lay in nearly every town, village and cemetery.
May 30, Mr. Logan wrote in a order, it should be « designated for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating 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 troops who had fallen into the service of the country, Americans began to refer to the observance as « Memorial Day. » Among the earliest references to the commemoration in The New York Times is a published article on June 7, 1868. He describes a note, accompanied by a wreath, from « a girl of about 10 » asking an official to place the wreath on the grave of an unknown rebel soldier. Her father, she explained, was buried in Andersonville, Georgia, and she hoped « some little girl » would do the same at his grave.
Another article published on May 31, 1870, describes processions in New York City and Brooklyn (then separate cities), among other places. The story observed that, apart from Independence Day, there was « no day that more appealed to the patriotic feelings of our people than ‘Memorial Day,' » which, the article said, was a national holiday not by any decree of the legislator but by the « general consent of the people ».
Congress formally changed the name of the commemoration in 1967. A few years later, the government decreed that Memorial Day should not take place on May 30 but on the last Monday of that month.
The change was part of a larger effort to create three-day weekends, Sarah Weicksel, director of research and publications at the American Historical Association, said, « They wanted it to be an opportunity for people to come together. »
What about Veterans Day?
Though Memorial Day has evolved, it remains a day to honor the nation’s war dead. Veterans Day, however, honors everyone who has served in the US military.
Veterans Day, celebrated annually on November 11, was originally called Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I in 1918. The holiday was first commemorated in the United States in 1919, but was expanded in the 1950s to include all veterans.
Both holidays honor those who have served the country, and how they are commemorated now may seem similar. But, after World War I, veterans « wanted a memorial of their own, that North and South could celebrate together, » Henry W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email.
A disputed story
Nearly 160 years after the end of the American Civil War, Memorial Day’s true origins remain unclear, experts say. But the holiday’s black history was not universally welcomed. In 2021, the microphone of a veteran who had tried to accredit Black Americans was silenced during an American Legion service in Hudson, Ohio.
« Charleston forgot this story because it didn’t fit » with the emerging narrative in the defeated South, said David W. Blight, a historian at Yale University. In the 1990s he uncovered details of the racecourse procession, which took place at a location that had once been popular with plantation owners. Black protesters, he added, « were reinscribing it as a place to commemorate their freedom. »
According to Dr. Blight, white Southerners used Memorial Day to bolster their Lost Cause mythology, the idea that rebellion was an honorable revolt against Northern tyranny that had little or nothing to do with slavery.
The notion that both warring sides had fought in a noble cause was quickly rejected by Frederick Douglass, who said at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 1871: “We must never forget that the victory of the rebellion meant death for the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest under this sod have come between the nation and the destroyers of the nation. »