Memorial Day: Which War?


Memorial Day was not universally recognized as a shared American Holiday until after World War I. But that’s not how it started in the United States. Here’s the background.

Civil War

Following the American Civil War or the War Between the States as it was known in the South, various locations began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and flags, as I’ve written previously. This began in the mid to late 1860s across the country, as almost every community had been touched by loss from the country-wide conflagration. Over 600,000 men and women had died, more than any American war, including the combined losses suffered in WWI and WWII — we were both sides of the war.

decoration-dayIn 1868, by the proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union), these decoration services were unified on May 30 as Decoration Day. 5,000 mourners met at Arlington National Cemetery to place flowers and ribbons on the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Union veteran Generals and future Presidents James Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant were in attendance.
GettysburgThe Gettysburg Battlefield, following Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address there, became a popular location for memorializing the 3,500 fallen, beginning in 1868. The Gettysburg community has since had a parade there for a century and a half. In 1882, the holiday was first called Memorial Day. However Southern states, feeling that the national celebrations emphasized Union soldiers, had their own separate memorial services to honor the fallen Confederate soldiers held on different dates in each state.

poppyWorld War I

During the next great war that America fought, World War I, over 130,000 American died. This war effectively unified both North and South in a common shared experience of Memorial Day. May 30 was now a holiday to recognize all fallen American soldiers back to the American Revolutionary War.  It differs from Veterans Day, signified by the poppy, in that it uniquely honors fallen soldiers rather than surviving veterans. Hence, we fly our flags at half-mast until noon.

My old sociology professor Robert Bellah at Berkeley taught that America is unique in that it has a “civil religion” with a shared non-denominational quasi-religious faith distinguished by fundamental beliefs, values and rituals — especially rituals — that are parallel to one’s own chosen religion. He said that

“Memorial Day has acted to integrate the local community into the national cult.”

If so, Memorial Day has become one of the most sacred of these national rituals, a holiday for all Americans.

20th Century

It became a federal holiday only as recently as 1971 when its date was moved from May 30 — originally chosen for the day flowers optimally bloom — to the last Monday in May, to create a 3-day weekend. Some have claimed that this change along with the addition of golf tournaments and car races has eroded the remembrance of the holiday’s original purpose.

How do you celebrate Memorial Day?

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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1 comment… add one
  • I celebrate simply by hearing taps and remember those who are lost to us


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