Memorial Day has been called the unofficial start of summer vacation. There may be many that disagree, but the very thought of it conjures up images of barbecues, swim parties, family gatherings, picnics, or, at the very least, a chance to be lazy and have a day off. But in its origins, there was a deeper meaning for the holiday. There was also a little bit of controversy as well.
It is widely disputed as to how Memorial Day actually got started. There are around five different towns that each claim to be where the concept of this nationwide holiday actually originated. David Blight, a well-known historian at Yale University, contends that the first Memorial Day was in April 1865, when a few former slaves met in the South Carolina town of Charleston at a horse race track that had been turned into a Confederate prison where over 250 Union soldiers had perished. The former slaves unearthed the soldiers one by one from the mass graves, gave them each an individual resting place, built a fence around the area, and built an archway. Inscribed at the top of the archway were the words Martyrs of the Race Course on the top. On May 1 of the same year, around 10,000 black citizens of Charleston, along with white teachers, students, missionaries, and Union soldiers, marched around the Planters’ Race Course, carrying roses and singing. As they gathered at the new cemetery, five black clergymen quoted scriptures while choirs made up of mostly children sung old traditional hymns along with the National Anthem. Although this story is not told much today, a few historians consider this the first Memorial Day.
In spite of random celebrations in several small townships, it was three years before the holiday came to be observed nationwide. In an official proclamation, John Logan, a general of the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a group of former sailors and soldiers, proclaimed Decoration Day to be held on May 30, 1868. According to the document, the idea behind observing the day was to decorate the graves of soldiers who died in defense of their country during the most recent conflict with flowers or other similar items. On that day, General James Garfield gave a speech honoring the day at Arlington National Cemetery. After he spoke, thousands of observers decorated the grave markers of over 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers buried at that particular cemetery.
In the beginning, Memorial Day was very closely identified with the beliefs and ideals of the Union, so that most Southern states staunchly refused to honor or celebrate it in any fashion. It was only after World War I that they gave in and soon, the holiday was extended to not just honor Civil War dead but in fact, all American soldiers who perished as a result of fighting in every war or conflict. At that time, the name was changed to Memorial Day. Many critics at the time said that in making the holiday broader in its scope, the original focus on the clash in morality that existed between the ideas of slavery and freedom had been lost.
Adorning one’s self with red poppies has been a long-revered Memorial Day tradition since 1915. Moina Michael, a war secretary overseas, came across the John McCrae poem In Flanders Fields while reading the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal. The opening line of that poem talks about poppies blowing in the wind between crosses in a war cemetery. Ms. Michael was moved by the poem and vowed to always wear a poppy in honor of the United States soldiers who gave up their lives in service to their country during wartime. Soon, she would sell them to coworkers and friends and launched a movement to declare the red flowers an official emblem of the fallen soldier. In 1921, the American Legion would embrace that symbol and the tradition would spread rather rapidly to over fifty other nations around the world, including Australia, France, and England. Just before the 1922 observation of Memorial Day, the Veterans of Foreign Wars became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies all across the nation. Two years later, they initiated the “Buddy”Poppy program. This program had the initiative of selling to the public artificial poppies that had been crafted and designed by disabled veterans. It was in 1948 that the United States Post Office decided to honor Ms. Michael for her role in the creation of the National Poppy tradition and issued a red postage stamp with her face on it.
It was in 1966 that President Lyndon Baines Johnson worked in conjunction with the United States Congress to declare Waterloo, New York, as the actual birthplace of Memorial Day. A ceremony had been held there in 1866 to honor soldiers who had recently fought in the Civil War. Residents flew flags at half-staff and businesses closed. Those who support Waterloo as being the origin of Memorial Day say that observances in previous times had been more informal and were not necessarily for the whole community. In many cases, they were one-time occurrences.
In 1971, the National Holiday Act was passed, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in the month of May. Critics of this measure have said that guaranteeing that holiday as part of a three-day weekend does more to promote relaxation and recreation than to stress the true meaning of the holiday. Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inuoye sponsored a bill in 1989 to move the holiday back to May 30, and has done it several times since, but has never met success.
Many towns have majorly curtailed their traditional Memorial Day celebrations and ceremonies with each passing year. However, they are still a standard fixture at Arlington National Cemetery. Every year, beginning in the 1950s, soldiers assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division have planted flags at each of the over 260,000 graves in that cemetery. During the weekend, committed soldiers patrol on a 24-hour basis to make sure each flag stays in place. On the actual holiday, about 5,000 people turn out every year to see the president or vice president lay a wreath and give a speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Other citizens are often encouraged to observe and celebrate in a more solitary form. At 3 p.m., regardless of time zone, as per the National Moment of Remembrance Act of 2000, all Americans should observe in an informal fashion of their own choosing a moment of respect and homage to those who have died for their country. They are asked to cease whatever they are doing to listen to “Taps” or observe a moment of silence.
By Rick Hope
PBS-History of Memorial Day
Department of Veterans Affairs-Special Events, History of Memorial Day
U.S. Memorial Day-History of Memorial Day