Memorial Day: How It Started

According to legend, it was on an April morning in 1863, as the Civil War was still raging, that a group of women came to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their soldier dead. The place was Columbus, Mississippi (or maybe Macon, Georgia — or even Richmond, Virginia. Legend disagrees.)

An elderly woman finished decorating the graves of her two sons and then walked toward two mounds at the corner of the cemetery. Another woman asked, “What are you doing? Those are graves of two Union Soldiers!”

“I know,” replied the first woman as she spread out flowers on the two graves. “I also know that somewhere in the North a mother or a young wife mourns for them as we do for ours.” Then she faced the other women and said, “They are dead, our heroes of the South; and they are dead, these unknown soldiers of the North. All of them are lying here in our church yard. When this war is finally over and peace comes, we shall call all of them heroes. We want someone to do this for our loved ones in nameless graves. We must do it for these in our cemetery.” They called this day “Decoration Day,” and its observance spread throughout the South.

This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and as Americans prepare to mark the holiday, rural communities in the South are gathering to clean and decorate cemeteries in the longstanding tradition known as Decoration Day.

National Public Radio (NPR) reports that folklorist Alan Jabbour, the author of the book Decoration Day in the Mountains believes the Southern tradition of Decoration Day was the inspiration for Northerners who created Memorial Day in the years after the Civil War. The big difference between Memorial Day and Decoration Day is that Memorial Day is on a set date, while Decoration Day is not. (Decoration Day is also known as Confederate Memorial Day in several states throughout the South, Confederate Decoration Day in Tennessee, and Confederate Heroes Day in Texas.)

In 1868, General John A Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order designating the 30th of May, 1868 as a day to decorate the graves of all who had fallen in the Civil War. According to Logan’s wife, he emulated the practices of Decoration Day. She wrote that Logan said “it was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South in perpetuating the memory of their friends who had died for the cause they thought was just and right.”

Almost 150 years have passed since Commander Logan’s proclamation. Decoration Day has become Memorial Day. After World War I, throughout this United States Americans began setting aside Memorial Day as a special time to remember the steep price that has been paid in blood for our freedom by those who have fought in each of America’s wars. Today Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. It is now customary for the president to give a speech honoring the sacrifice of the dead and to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To this day, several Southern States continue to set aside a day other than Memorial Day to honor the Confederate dead; this day is usually called Confederate Memorial Day.

To this very day, in certain parts of the USA, people still fight over whether Memorial Day actually began as a day to remember Confederate dead or Union dead. So, in order to settle all disagreements, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo — which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 — because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

And why did Waterloo, New York choose May 5, 1866? Because in 1866 the story of the Southern women decorating “graves of dead Yankees” (the story with which this blog began) appeared in the New York Tribune, following which it was printed in papers across the country. The dissemination of this story was accepted as the beginning of an effort to replace hatred with love following the Civil War.

In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.

In recent years, participants in Memorial Day activities have focused less on graveyard maintenance and more on social activities. But however you celebrate this Memorial Day, (and whatever you are convinced it began to commemorate) make sure that you spend some time remembering the men and women who gave their lives that you might live free. The sad thing about Memorial Day is the sure knowledge that in the years to come, there will be other wars and other graves to decorate. May God help our world to accept the Prince of Peace and learn to live together under the banner of His love.

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