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.
When did it begin?
Civil War and Memorial Day
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 started 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 war that Americans were involved in, including the combined losses suffered in WWI and WWII — because we were both sides of the Civil War.
Memorial Day after the Civil War
In 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association secretary in Columbus, Georgia, wanted to erect a memorial to those fallen during the Civil War but did not have the funds. They recognized, however, that flowers were readily available to decorate graves. Secretary Mary Ann Williams wrote a letter that was published in March and April in more than two dozen newspapers across the U.S. to:
“beg the assistance of the Press and the Ladies throughout the South to aid us in our efforts to set apart a certain day to be observed from the Potomac to the Rio Grande and be handed down through time a religious custom of the country to wreathe the graves of our martyred dead with flowers.”
At least twenty-five cities in America claim that they are the birthplace of this practice and this holiday. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, an American village on the National Historic Register, makes this claim on a sign at the entrance to the town near State College, PA.
However, Southern states felt that the national celebrations emphasized Union soldiers and had their own separate memorial services to honor the fallen Confederate soldiers held on different dates in each state. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia on the fourth Monday in April. In Mississippi, it is observed on the last Monday in April. In South Carolina and North Carolina, it falls on May 10. Texas marks Confederate Heroes’ Day on January 19.
World War I and Memorial Day
During the next great war that America fought, World War I, over 130,000 Americans died. This war effectively unified North and South in a 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 explicitly honors fallen soldiers rather than surviving veterans. Hence, we fly our flags at half-mast until noon.
Memorial Day as a Unifier
My old sociology professor at Berkeley, Robert Bellah, taught that America — which does not have a state religion — 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 Memorial Day
It became a federal holiday only as recently as 1971 when its date was moved from May 30 — chosen initially 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.
Congress in December 2000 passed, and the President signed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” into law to ensure those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not forgotten. At 3:00 p.m. local time, Americans are asked to participate in the National Moment of Remembrance, a time to pause in a moment of silence to honor those who have died serving the U.S.
World War II and Memorial Day
Most people think of Memorial Day in reference to World War II; it remains in the memory of those still living from that war. And for a good reason: more people, American and otherwise, died worldwide in WWII — military and civilians — than in any other war in history, before or since. This is depicted in the video linked below.
How do you celebrate Memorial Day?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian