Like many other American holidays, Memorial Day has a controversial past and the exact history of how it began is still disputed among scholars and historians alike. There are up to 25 towns claiming to have each “founded” the popular national holiday, which started out being called “Decoration Day.” In one of the most prominent versions of the story, May 5, 1866 saw the first Memorial Day after being thought up by a Waterloo, New York druggist named Henry C. Welles. Welles had brought up the idea numerous times prior, and finally got his wish to honor fallen soldiers by setting aside a day to remember them.
In the Waterloo origination story, General John B. Murray, who was a celebrated leader in the Civil War, advanced Welles’ cause, and rallied the town to hold a formal ceremony complete with music, a march through town, and the draping of soldiers’ graves with wreaths and black mourning cloths. This first observance took place again on May 30 the next year, and after that, Waterloo reached out to adjoining towns to participate. The idea soon caught on and eventually, a nationwide Memorial Day was born.
Other versions of the history behind the holiday include dozens of towns claiming to be the founders of the national day of recognition, including locations in both the North and the South. All representatives from these towns are equally insistent that their place of residence is the one and only true origin of Memorial Day. As with most deeply established cultural traditions, the truth may be found in a mixture of all the stories, accounts, documents and written histories regarding this holiday set aside to honor the soldiers who helped shape the United States into the land it is today, but two scenarios emerge as frontrunners for the crown of the “true history of Memorial Day.” The first, and most often repeated is the Waterloo New York account.
The Waterloo origination is a neat and pat version of the Memorial Day story, but its past is much more controversial than such a simple explanation. That’s because there’s another prominent scenario that plays into the history of the holiday; a version of the story much different and, some would say, even more meaningful. It’s a version that incorporates sensitive issues like past and current race relations in the United States. It’s a tale that digs up the very foundation of long buried pain: the pain of slavery. For this version, those seeking to understand the history of Memorial Day will have to leave Waterloo New York and travel to all the way down the East Coast to one of its southernmost regions: Charleston, South Carolina.
It was in this Confederate state, says historian David W. Blight, that a very different origin of the holiday took place. In this story, it wasn’t a decorated war hero or a Northern businessman who founded Memorial Day, but rather, a group of black Americans who had once been slaves. The entire purpose of the day was to celebrate the men who gave their lives to end slavery, and thus, this version of the holiday’s history puts a very different spin on which soldiers were intended to be recognized.
On May 1, 1865, says Blight in his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, up to ten thousand people participated in re-burying 257 Union soldiers and then cleaning and decorating the graves in a proper cemetery setting. Ten days prior to this “Decoration Day,” the men in the town, mostly ex-slaves, worked to prepare the new memorial graveyard which they named “Martyrs of the Race Course.” They also built a large fence around the area and built a formal archway welcoming visitors to honor the fallen soldiers.
This Decoration Day was filled with music, marches, trumpets, and dozens of speeches by Union representatives and supporters. Thus, in Welles’ version of the story, the first Memorial Day was not so much about remembering all of the United States’ fallen soldiers but about celebrating the sacrifices of the Union Army only. The Charleston origination version, although set in the South, will most surely displease many Southerners; the first Decoration Day definitely did not include any recognition or honors bestowed upon Confederate soldiers, and the holiday was not set in motion to recognize all soldiers equally. Given that the South today still is replete with Confederate flags, this version of the story may not be very popular in that region. Memorial Day continues to have a controversial past and disputed history. The real story is very likely a solid mixture of all recorded versions of the holiday’s true origins.
By: Rebecca Savastio
David W. Blight