In Observance of Memorial Day
My most recent historical book, A Widow’s Salvation, which is due out later this year, is the first in my series to highlight the Civil War. Even then, my story is more about how the war affected the lives of everyday citizens instead of the battles themselves.
The Civil War was unlike any war in our history. It was being fought on our soil, and in many cases, it pitted brother against brother. It was a war that threatened to rip this new country apart, and it affected every person living in the country at the time. The vast number of soldier deaths on both sides of the war–600,000 total–gave burial and commemoration of these men special significance. On May 5, 1868, the head of the organization of Union veterans, declared Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. The May date was chosen because if was an optimum time for flowers to be in bloom, and to be used for decoration of the graves.
There have been many towns that say they were the first to observe a special day for these soldiers. Charleston, SC, Gettysburg, PA, Warrenton, VA, Savannah, GA , Waterloo, NY, are but a few cities that laid claim to being the first to commemorate Civil War soldiers’ gravestones. Where the practice began is not nearly as important as the meaning behind it. Although the decorating of soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom, the Civil War, and the vast amount of deaths that were involved, brought a new significance to the day. As more bodies were returned home, burial grounds were created and this special day was set aside.
The North and the South had different experiences with regard to setting up national graveyards for the massive amount of casualties. The North already had Arlington National Cemetery and the Gettysburg battlefield was turned into a National Cemetery. Plus, the North had the benefit of the government, which funded a large portion of the reclamation of the soldiers. However, the South was not so organized or so wealthy. The Ladies Memorial Association was formed with the intent to bring all the Southern boys home. Across the South, various associations, many founded by women, were established to set aside room for National Confederate cemeteries, and to care for them. The United Daughters of the Confederacy eventually grew to over 100,000 members. Their main mission was to raise money to establish Confederate monuments and to rebury the Confederate dead. Most of the Southern efforts were funded by individuals.
After World War 1, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and designated as the last Monday in May. Today, the many graves at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated with small American flags.