Laurel the Graves: The History of Memorial Day
Even before the Civil War ended, grave decoration was common as a means of honoring the staggering number of casualties in communities across the nation. These efforts were largely organized by women, who were left behind to keep their homes and communities running as their fathers, husbands, and brothers marched off to war. Women in both the north and the south organized efforts to maintain and decorate the graves of their fallen soldiers, even as the number of those graves continued to grow. When war finally came to an end, the tradition remained.
Prior to 1865, Decoration Days were minor, localized affairs. Lacking any real centralized organization, small groups of friends and family gathered at cemeteries on different days throughout the year to clean and decorate graves. That changed in early May, 1865, when a group of newly freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina came together to honor Union prisoners of war who had died in a Confederate prison just outside the city. The prison was located on the grounds of a former racetrack, and after burying the dead in proper graves, black workers erected an archway at the entrance to the former track reading, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” When the new cemetery and memorial was completed, the African-American community organized what is considered by many to be the first Decoration Day. On May 1, regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops marched in a parade, women and children decorated the graves with flowers, and families picnicked nearby as a band played patriotic music. Despite coverage in the local press at the time, the event was quickly forgotten, and was soon overshadowed by Decoration Days organized by white communities. In fact, several towns in both the north and south take credit for organizing the first “true” Decoration Day. It was not until recently, with the discovery of a contemporary newspaper article in a Charleston archive that the city’s African-American community received recognition for the important role they played in the early history of Memorial Day.
This sketch is one of the few images that remain of the Union cemetery outside of Charleston. The graves were reinterred elsewhere in 1880, but the old racetrack is still there. No images survive of the Decoration Day event that took place there in May 1865. “Martyrs of the Race-Course- Union Prisoners’ Cemetery at Charleston, S.C.” Sketch by A.R. Ward, published in Harper’s Weekly, May 18, 1867. Courtesy of the University of Iowa.Despite a common grief, the bitterness of war was slow to fade, and so northerners and southerners celebrated Decoration Day separately. In practice, Decoration Days were very similar, regardless of where they took place. Northerners and southerners alike gathered in their respective communities to decorate, clean, and repair the graves of their fallen soldiers, while honoring their sacrifice with prayer, song, and speeches. While grief is certainly universal, the rhetoric of these regionally divided Decoration Days revealed the lingering hostilities of war. In the north, Decoration Day speakers blamed the South for starting the war in the first place. In the south, orators often ignored the role that slavery played in the cause of the war, painting instead an image of a glorious Confederate past, destroyed by an unprovoked northern aggression. Both sides typically refused to decorate or honor the graves of their fallen enemies, even if they lay side by side with their own soldiers.
The first larger Decoration Day documented in the north took place on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, New York. The day featured a parade down the town’s main street, which concluded at the local cemetery. Once there, men, women, and children decorated the graves of Union soldiers with flowers, then listened to patriotic songs while they enjoyed picnic lunches nearby. Soon, towns across the north followed Waterloo’s lead, and began organizing similar celebrations of their own. John A. Logan, former Union major-general and commander-in-chief of the Union veterans' group, the Grand Army of the Republic, quickly took notice of Decoration Day’s spread. In 1868, Logan issued “General Order No. 11,” which called for a day dedicated to “national commemoration.” From this order Memorial Day was born, and what was once a localized tradition became a federally recognized holiday on May 30, 1868. The names “Memorial Day” and “Decoration Day” were used interchangeably until the second half of the 20th century.
Major-General John A. Logan (1860). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.As Decoration Day grew and evolved in the north, their southern counterparts remained quiet, somber events, as participants honored not only their fallen soldiers, but mourned the defeat of the Confederate cause itself. There were no parades, likely little music. Throughout the spring, southerners gathered in their cemeteries to pull weeds, repair tombstones, and decorate Confederate graves with flowers. These springtime events were particularly popular in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy. The most prominent Decoration Days were held in Hollywood Cemetery, the largest in the city, and the resting place of several Confederate military heroes. Following Logan’s general order creating Memorial Day, southerners moved quickly to distinguish themselves from the north by creating Confederate Memorial Day, which took place on different dates throughout the states of the former Confederacy.
“Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA—Decorating the Graves of Rebel Soldiers,” May 31, 1867. Engraving by William Ludwell Sheppard published in Harper’s Weekly, 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.As the living embodiment of their fallen comrades in arms, veterans played an increasingly important role in Memorial Day festivities. Dressed in their military uniforms and carrying the flags of their former regiments, veterans' organizations added military pomp and circumstance to the day’s events. It was the increasing influence of veterans' organizations, like the Grand Army of the Republic in the north and the United Confederate Veterans in the south, which turned Memorial Day into a celebratory affair, rather than a strictly somber occasion. With the formal end of Reconstruction in 1876, veterans took the lead in bringing the nation’s Memorial Day celebrations together. Union and Confederate veterans began jointly participating in Memorial Day events all over the country, and American citizens followed their example. The rhetoric of these joint celebrations was strikingly different from their early counterparts. Instead of dwelling on animosity towards their former enemies, orators focused on the shared valor and sacrifice of all American soldiers. Though some Americans still resisted reconciliation and Confederate Memorial Day continued to be celebrated separately in the south, the growing number of joint Memorial Days signaled how far the nation had come on the road to healing.
The 1877 Memorial Day celebrations in New York City perhaps best exemplified this feeling of national reunion. Hundreds of thousands of Americans from across the country flocked to New York to participate. The celebration was marked by a massive parade down Fifth Avenue, musical performances, and the decoration of every Civil War grave in the city—both Union and Confederate. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Memorial Day celebrations (though maybe not to quite the magnitude of New York in 1877) were common in major cities across the U.S. Memorial Day’s sense of patriotism and pride was amplified in 1898, when the United States entered the Spanish-American War. The first major military conflict since the Civil War brought a new wave of American casualties, who gave their lives not for a Union or a Confederacy, but for a unified America. As the United States entered a new century, the purpose behind Memorial Day was more meaningful than ever—a sentiment that was renewed with each new war, including World War I and World War II. No longer dedicated only to Civil War dead, Memorial Day now honors fallen soldiers and veterans from every military conflict since.
This Puck Magazine cover features a Confederate and a Union veteran coming together to support a Spanish-American War soldier in honor of Memorial Day, 1899. “Memorial Day, 1899—Three Veterans Under One Flag,” Illustrated by Udo J. Keppler for Puck Magazine (1899). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Veterans participate in a Decoration Day parade in Pittsburgh (1918). Courtesy of the Oakmont Historical Image Collection at the Oakmont Carnegie Library Archives.Today, Memorial Day is celebrated annually in the United States on the last Monday in May, thanks to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, passed by Congress in 1968. Typically, the day is marked by picnics and barbeques, just like in the holiday’s earliest days. At national cemeteries around the country, the tradition of grave decoration lives on as veterans’ graves are marked with small American flags. This year, circumstances are keeping most Americans from celebrating Memorial Day as they normally would—with family get-togethers, pool parties, and parades. Even so, we can continue to honor the spirit of the holiday and the tradition from which it grew, by simply taking a moment to remember and thank those who gave everything for our nation.
Or the winding rivers run red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.
Final stanza of The Blue and The Gray by Francis Miles Finch. Inspired by Decoration Day, the poem was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867.
David W. Blight, “The First Decoration Day,” originally published April 15, 2015 in the Newark Star Ledger. http://www.davidwblight.com/public-history/2015/4/27/the-first-decoration-day-newark-star-ledger?rq=memorial%20day
David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
“Memorial Day,” History.com, originally published October 27, 2009, updated April 3, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history