Don't Know Much

150 Years of the Divisive & Partisan History of “Memorial Day”

Share:

MEMORIAL DAY -MONDAY MAY 28, 2018

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Photo: Arlington National Cemetery) This memorial was created after the great losses of World War I.

(Revise of 2015 post)

It is a well-established fact that Americans like to argue. And we do. Mays or Mantle. A Caddy or a Lincoln. And, of course, abolition, abortion, and guns.

But a debate over Memorial Day –and more specifically where and how it began? America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.

The heated arguments over removing the Confederate flag and monuments to heroes and soldiers of the Confederacy in New Orleans and St. Louis provide examples and reminders of the birth of Memorial Day.

In the Korean War, the U.S. military was integrated. (Source: Library of Congress)

Waterloo, New York claimed that the holiday originated there with a parade and decoration of the graves of fallen soldiers in 1866. But according to the Veterans Administration, at least 25 places stake a claim to the birth of Memorial Day. Among the pack are Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which says it was first in 1864.( “Many Claim to Be Memorial Day Birthplace” )

And Charleston, South Carolina, according to historian David Blight, points to a parade of emancipated children in May 1865 who decorated the graves of fallen Union soldiers whose remains were moved from a racetrack to a proper cemetery.

But the passions cut deeper than pride of place.

Born 150 years ago out of the Civil War’s catastrophic death toll as “Decoration Day,” Memorial Day is a day for honoring our nation’s war dead. A veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War, John A. Logan, a Congressman and leader of the Grand Army of the Republic,  set the first somber commemoration on May 30, 1868, in Arlington Cemetery, the sacred space wrested from property once belonging to Robert E. Lee’s family.( When Memorial Day was No Picnic by James M. McPherson.) The Grand Army of the Republic was a powerful fraternal organization formed of Civil War Union veterans.

Abraham Lincoln (November 1863) Photo by Alexander Gardner

From its inception, Decoration Day (later Memorial Day) was linked to  “Yankee” losses in the cause of emancipation. Calling for the first formal Decoration Day, Union General John Logan wrote,  “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains…”

In other words, Logan’s first Decoration Day was divisive— a partisan affair, organized by northerners.

In 1871, Frederick Douglass gave a Memorial Day speech in Arlington that focused on this division:

 

 

 

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

3-92

 

But the question remains: what inspired Logan to call for this rite of decorating soldier’s graves with fresh flowers?

The simple answer is—his wife.

While visiting Petersburg, Virginia – which fell to General Grant 150 years ago in 1865 after a year-long, deadly siege – Mary Logan learned about the city’s women who had formed a Ladies’ Memorial Association. Their aim was to show admiration  “…for those who died defending homes and loved ones.”

Choosing June 9th, the anniversary of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” in 1864, a teacher had taken her students to the city’s cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen. General Logan’s wife wrote to him about the practice. Soon after, he ordered a day of remembrance.

The teacher and her students, it is worth noting, had placed flowers and flags on both Union and Confederate graves.

As America wages its partisan wars at full pitch, this may be a lesson for us all.

More resources at the New York Times Topics archive of Memorial Day articles

The story of “The Battle of the Old Men and the Young Boys” is told in  THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR (Now in paperback)

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

Now In paperback THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF AMERICA AT WAR: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah

The Latest From My Blog

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War (Available May 15)

More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War now on sale.

Read More

In the Shadow of Liberty

The history of slavery and its role in American history and society has never been more important. Read about its significance through the stories of five real people.

Read More