|Graves at Arlington Cemetery. Image and article courtesy Wikipedia.
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May (May 30 in 2011). Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates men and women who died while in military service to the United States. First enacted to honor Union and Confederate soldiers following the American Civil War, it was extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.
Memorial Day often marks the start of the summer vacation season, and Labor Day its end. Began as a ritual of remembrance and reconciliation after the civil war, by the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as ordinary people visited the graves of their deceased relatives, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 (since 1911) and the Coca-Cola 600 (since 1960) auto races.
By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves had become widespread in the North. The first known observance was in Boalsburg, Pa on October, 1864, and each year thereafter. The friendship between General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who helped bring attention to the event nationwide, was likely a factor in the holiday’s growth. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic – the organization for Northern Civil War veterans – Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.
There were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been buried in 73 national cemeteries, located mostly in the South, near the battlefields. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the war – and at first to recall the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation, one closer to their God. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world. Ironton, Ohio lays claim to the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade, since 1868. In 1882, the name of Decoration Day was formally changed to Memorial Day in “memory” and ‘honor” of those who gave their lives fighting for a common cause, America.
In the South
In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, freedmen (freed enslaved Africans) celebrated at the Washington Race Course, today the location of Hampton Park. The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, freedmen exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them in individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the ground, thereby creating the first Decoration Day-type celebration.
Beginning in 1866 the Southern states had their own Memorial Days, ranging from April 26 to mid June. The birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, June 3, became a state holiday in 10 states by 1916. Across the South associations were founded after the war to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for Confederate soldiers, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate tradition. Women provided the leadership in these associations, paving the way to establish themselves as capable of public leadership.
The earliest Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries. Around 1890, there was a shift from this consolatory emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate “Lost Cause”. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, however, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause. Columbus, Mississippi, at its Decoration Day on April 25, 1866, commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery.
The ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park were nationally famous, starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most famous battle. The four-day “Blue-Gray Reunion” featured parades, reenactments, and speeches from a host of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner in the White House since the War. Congressman James Heflin of Alabama was given the honor of the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; two of his best-known speeches were an endorsement of the Lincoln Memorial and his call to make Mother’s Day a holiday, but his choice as Memorial Day speaker was met with criticism. He was opposed for his racism, but his speech was moderate, stressing national unity and goodwill, and the newspapers, including those who opposed his invitation to speak, praised him.
Flags at half-staff until noon
On Memorial Day the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.
The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.
Name and date
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date, although the significance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:
Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
Since 1987, Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, has repeatedly introduced measures to return Memorial Day to its traditional date.
After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’s change of date within a few years. Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. This role is filled in neighboring Canada by Victoria Day, which occurs either on May 24 or the last Monday before that date, placing it exactly one week before Memorial Day.
Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. It runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976. The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol the Sunday before Memorial Day. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who died in war.
Sociologists, following the lead of Robert Bellah, often make the argument that America has a secular “civil religion” – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. Our American tradition includes an obligation to honor the sacrifices made by our nation to earn our freedom. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion in contrast to that of France was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain it was not tied to a specific denomination like the Church of England. Instead the Americans borrowed selectively from different religious traditions in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two, thus mobilizing deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.
In literature and music
Charles Ives’s symphonic poem Decoration Day depicted the holiday as he experienced it in his childhood, with his father’s band leading the way to the town cemetery, the playing of “Taps” on a trumpet, and a livelier march tune on the way back to the town. It is frequently played with three other Ives works based on holidays as the second movement of A New England Holidays Symphony.