America’s most solemn holiday should be free of rancor. But it never has been.
Army bases honoring Confederates are finally being renamed. The Confederate Monument in Arlington National Cemetery is on its way out. 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.
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.
Born 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, established 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 and Logan issued “General Order N.11” calling for a day to decorate the graves of the fallen Union soldiers with flowers.
What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.
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.
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.
After the war, while visiting Petersburg, Virginia – which fell to General Grant in 1865 after a deadly, year-long 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” fought 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. Despite all the other claims of credit –which are somewhat besides the point– Petersburg’s celebration inspired the “first” Decoration Day.
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)