War and Remembrance: the Origins of Memorial Day
At the end of America’s bloodiest conflict, there was scarcely a household North or South that had not suffered loss. Estimates of the dead due to combat, accidents, starvation, and disease range from 620,000 to 850,000, depending upon the source. Most historians agree that the lower figure is probably the more accurate, but whatever the actual total, the cost in human loss of life and suffering was horrendous with around 2% of the population making the ultimate sacrifice. In today’s population, 620,000 would translate to approximately 6 million. The Civil War left deeply rooted, painful scars upon the American heart and soul, echoes of which still haunt us today. Within two-three years of the conflict’s end, communities across the nation began decorating the graves of the fallen.
First called Decoration Day, several towns and cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Among those are Columbus and Macon, Georgia, Richmond Virginia, and Carbondale, Illinois. Approximately 25 locations, the majority in the South where so many from both dies were buried, lay claim to having been the first to honor the dead by decorating their graves. The official beginning is placed at Decatur, Illinois in 1868 when General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union veterans, called for a national of recognition during which graves would be decorated with flags, wreaths, and flowers on the last day of May. Wherever Decoration Days where held, it was often a town’s women who led the effort to memorialize the war dead. In many a southern town, the United Daughters of the Confederacy or the Ladies Memorial Association led those efforts.
One particularly poignant early memorial event occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. On the grounds of what is now Hampton Park near downtown Charleston and bordered by The Citadel, once stood the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club. During the Civil War, it was used as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Union soldiers. 260 officers died there while in captivity. To commemorate their sacrifice, approximately 10,000 persons, the majority freed former slaves, gathered on May 1 to sing hymns and honor the men. There is believed to have been a parade, the singing of “John Brown’s Body”, and flowers placed the men were buried. For two weeks prior to the ceremony, freed blacks removed the Union bodies from a mass grave and reburied each man in an individual grave. The graveyard was then surrounded by a protective fence with an arched entrance bearing a sign that read “The
Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Whether the earliest Decoration Days in their disparate locations were in some way connected and served as inspiration for one another or simply arose spontaneously in an outpouring of grief and the desire to remember the dead is unknown. In all probability there was an element of both in the ceremonies that followed and grew into what we now know as Memorial Day. When I was a child growing up in south Georgia, Decoration Day had all but been forgotten by the majority of the people I knew despite the fact that we had a very active chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in town.
In 1966, Congress choose to declare Waterloo, New York the “birthplace” of Memorial Day based on an account of a May 5, 1866 ceremony honoring the town’s Civil War dead. By the end of the 19th century May 30 was recognized by much of the nation as Memorial Day, but it was not made an official federal holiday until much later. After WWI, the dead of all wars were included in the recognition ceremonies. In 1971, Memorial Day was established as an official federal holiday by act of Congress which choose the last Monday in May as
Do you have particular memories of Memorial Day celebrations from your childhood?
Further Reading and Resources
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.