A few days ago, I read an article about the “true meaning of Memorial Day.” I can’t find it now, but it was in the Chicago Tribune. The author wrote that Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day,” when Southern women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers. I Googled some more and found other writers making the same claim. Here’s a piece by a Civil War historian from Purdue University Caroline Janney:
Many may not know the holiday weekend that marks the start of summer by paying respects to veterans and remembering loved ones began when white Southern women took a leadership role in honoring their Civil War veterans, says a Purdue University historian.
“After the Civil War, southern men would have appeared treasonous if they had organized memorials to honor their fallen, so women – perceived as apolitical – instead organized tributes and events that set the tone for how the country celebrates Memorial Day today,” says Caroline E. Janney, professor of historyand president-elect of the Society of Civil War Historians. “In 1866, the men were figuratively hiding behind the skirts of these women who worked together as part of Ladies’ Memorial Associations.”
The women organized dozens of memorials during the spring of 1866 and the following years, Janney says. Historically these memorials were scheduled throughout the spring as a sign of renewal and rebirth, and each community chose its own date to celebrate.
The date usually reflected a key date in the Civil War, such as the May 10 death of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, or a battle close to the association’s individual area. Memorial Day became more unified when larger associations, such as the United Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, began organizing memorials in the 1890s. And memorial days also were observed in the North, but they were organized by Union veterans beginning in 1868, two years after the ex-Confederate women had established the practice.
I was surprised, because I had read years ago that the practice was begun by former slaves who wanted to honor Union soldiers. I found the above photo on Facebook–with the suggestion that it was taken on that first Decoration Day May 1, 1865; but I can’t be absolutely certain that’s accurate. Note that that dates is a year earlier than the one Janney writes about. It turns out that a number of places and people claim to have started the practice of decorating Union and Confederate Graves. Southerners designated “Confederate Memorial Days.” Kingston, Georgia claims to have held the first one.
Yale historian David Blight wrote about the disputed origins of Memorial Day in the New York Times in 2011.
Officially, in the North, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, called on communities to conduct grave-decorating ceremonies. On May 30, funereal events attracted thousands of people at hundreds of cemeteries in countless towns, cities and mere crossroads. By the 1870s, one could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of the spring ritual.
But the practice of decorating graves — which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day — didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.
Soon the yearly practice became partisan:
In the South, Memorial Day was a means of confronting the Confederacy’s defeat but without repudiating its cause. Some Southern orators stressed Christian notions of noble sacrifice. Others, however, used the ritual for Confederate vindication and renewed assertions of white supremacy. Blacks had a place in this Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped loyal slaves who were supposed to remain frozen in the past.
The Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true “patriots,” defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order and a “cause” that had been overwhelmed by “numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.
Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the “rebel dead.”
But Blight discovered in a historical archive at Harvard University that the earliest celebration of “Decoration Day” was organized by freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865.
During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” ….
The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.
After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.
Nearly 150 years later, it’s apparently very difficult for some Americans to credit African Americans with the first Memorial Day (or with much of anything else for that matter). As Ta-Nehisi Coates showed in The Atlantic recently, it’s apparently difficult for Americans to remember much of anything about African American history–before or after the Civil War. Why would anyone feel comfortable mourning the “lost cause” of a society built on the enslavement of other human beings? I can understand mourning the dead Confederate soldiers, but shouldn’t there be recognition that they died for something shameful? We can look around us today and still see the aftereffects of the slavery and the war that ended it. Will we ever get over it? One more quote from Blight’s article:
The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic. They were themselves the true patriots.
On Memorial Day in 2014, we honor the dead of all wars, but we treat our living war veteran with disrespect. From CNN, ‘Thanks for your service’ not enough, by Sebastian Junger, Jim McDermott and Karl Marlantes.
According to current Veterans Administration estimates, 22 American veterans take their lives every single day.
High rates of unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress are decimating our community of veterans. With the wars of the past 13 years in Iraq and Afghanistan coming to a close, we are seeing too many casualties among American soldiers in this transition to peace.
In light of this crisis, we need a new kind of Memorial Day.
Many veterans are desperate to talk about their experiences with fellow Americans who accept shared responsibility for what is done in war, particularly the killing. Yet these conversations rarely happen today. How can a veteran truly come home unless we acknowledge that our nation’s wars are something we all chose and paid for?
Returning Vietnam veterans were treated shamefully. That, thankfully, is behind America. We’ve moved from outright hostility to awkward, if well-meant, expressions of “thank you for your service” and the creation of a number of new veterans services organizations.
However, there remains an abiding sense of national indifference, or worse, a sense that somehow veterans are victims. This must change.
A great deal needs to change for the United States to be “one nation indivisible.”
In the News
Isla Vista Mass Murder:
The horrible murders in Santa Barbara are still at the top of the Google News page today. A few links:
Little Green Footballs: Echoes of Montreal – Isla Vista shows us 25 years doesn’t change much.
The Washington Post: White House mistakenly identifies CIA chief in Afghanistan.
The New York Times: Pro-European Businessman Claims Victory in Ukraine Presidential Vote.
The Hollywood Reporter: Walt Disney Family Feud: Inside His Grandkids’ Weird, Sad Battle Over a $400 Million Fortune.
Politico: The ‘Wary of Hillary’ Democrats
What else is happening? Please post your links in the comment thread, and enjoy the holiday!