Memorial Day is such a conflicted holiday. We celebrate with joy and delight as we usher in summer over barbecues and swimming pools even as we mourn the loss of so many soldiers who died much too young protecting us and our way of life. Our very freedom to enjoy wonderful things like summer, barbecues, and swimming pools is due in part to the great sacrifices made by our country’s armed services.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and started soon after the Civil War. The first Decoration Day was a controversial day when, “Americans, north and south, faced an enormous spiritual and logistical challenge of memorialization.” (http://zinnedproject.org/materials/the-first-decoration-day/) History.com tells us this took place in 1868, “By proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic…mourners honored the Civil War dead by decorating their graves with flowers. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.”
The Zinn Education Project sites an earlier memorial event in Charleston, S.C. on May 1, 1865, just a week before the official ending of the Civil War.
At 9 a.m. on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”
This was just two weeks after President Lincoln’s assassination! Given the huge number of Civil War dead (750,000, almost 2.4% of the U.S. population at that time), the loss of the country’s Commander in Chief, and the fact that one in ten Union Army soldiers was African American, that we survived the political and social upheaval resulting from the conflict is a great testament to our national foundations.
According to USMemorialday.org, the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day was New York in 1873. All northern states recognized the holiday by 1890. But because of the strong emotions elicited by ideological differences, the South refused to recognize the holiday and instead honored their dead on “separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).”
By honoring all Americans who died in any war, the holiday has a much more unifying effect. And while Memorial Day did not become a national holiday until 1971, we will never forget those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice, political views notwithstanding.