Memorial Day began as a sectional holiday. Today it is a national one. How did it evolve into a remembrance that generally unites North and South?
The short answer to this question is the passage of time, and the shared American experience of wars that followed the Civil War.
Memorial Day started as a decoration day, the words lower-cased. In the weeks following Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the women and surviving men of the South began decorating the graves of their dead with the seasonal flowers then coming into bloom.
By the spring of 1866 these tributes had become more organized, according to historian and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust. The decorating was accompanied by some combination of prayers, music and oratory.
“Different locations across the South scheduled the ritual for different days,” writes Dr. Faust in her book, “The Republic of Suffering.”
Some Southern locations held their decoration day on May 10, the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Others held it on April 26, the day the surrender of the final Confederate Army in the field truly ended the war; or June 3, Jefferson Davis’s birthday.
Northerners also generally remembered their war dead on spring days. That was when flowers were available for wreaths and memorial sprays, after all. Then came the move which changed decoration day into Decoration Day, at least for the North. In 1868, US Army Gen. John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the politically powerful organization of northern Civil War veterans, issued a general order naming May 30 as a day to mound the graves of the war dead with “the choicest flowers of spring time.”
“Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of a rebellious tyranny in arms,” declared General Logan.
Logan’s words were directed toward a Union audience, obviously. And the South continued with its separate observances. The bitter experience of post-war Reconstruction did little to promote national healing on this matter.
Then the US fought the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. After it was over, President William McKinley traveled to Atlanta to try and promote some sectional reconciliation. The sons and grandsons of Confederate soldiers had recently fought alongside the descendents of Union men, President McKinley noted. He proposed that it was time for the North and South to share in the task of caring for the graves of Civil War dead.
“Every soldier’s grave made during our unfortunate Civil War is a tribute to American valor,” said McKinley in a speech in an Atlanta auditorium.
Not everyone was happy about this outreach. Some felt it glossed over the reasons for the war, and the fact that the South fought to protect slavery.
In any case, the recognition of different days for sectional memorial days persisted.
It took a much larger conflict, World War I, to finally bring North and South together in memory of their war dead. The holiday expanded to include a commemoration of all US soldiers who paid the ultimate price, in all the nation’s wars.
“After World War I, most Southern regions began to observe May 30 in addition to their earlier commemorations,” write Columbus State historian Dr. Richard Gardiner and author Daniel Bellware in their book, “The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America”.
A large encampment of the remaining veterans of the Civil War, held at Gettysburg, Pa., in the summer of 1913, helped finally end the sectional divisions which fueled the separate Memorial Days. Some 55,000 vets attended, about 22 percent of them former Confederates. The aging vets swapped memories and listened to a speech from President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected to the White House in the Civil War’s aftermath.
“We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms,” said President Wilson in his July 4 address.
The inferno of World War II further diminished the Civil War origins of Decoration Day in the collective national memory. In 1967, federal law officially recognized the holiday as “Memorial Day,” the by-then common name. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established a number of three-day US holidays. Memorial Day was officially set as the last Monday in May.
Thus what began as an ad-hoc memorial for sectional purposes in different parts of the nation fully transformed into a national event – both the unofficial start of summer, and the official day to stop and remember all those who have died in the conduct of the nation’s conflicts.