Memorial Day

views updated May 18 2018


Memorial Day's origins lie in the carnage of the Civil War, which demanded some ritual of remembrance, and in the new rural cemetery, which provided the ideal spot for the ritual of grave decoration. Columbus, Georgia; Boals-burg, Pennsylvania; and Waterloo, New York, all claim the first Memorial Day. (Congress recognized Waterloo's claim in 1966.) But the annual holiday began in the South in the spring of 1866, when ladies' memorial associations in Columbus and other southern towns instituted Memorial Days to recognize the Confederate dead by visiting and decorating their graves.

The first official Memorial Day for the Union dead did not occur until 1868. General John Logan, a Republican congressman from Illinois and commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veterans organization, designated 30 May as Memorial Day and ordered all GAR posts to decorate the graves of their fallen comrades. Logan's wife later claimed that she had suggested the idea to him after observing southern exercises in Virginia.

The two Memorial Days spread quickly through the efforts of the GAR and the ladies' memorial associations. Congress made 30 May a holiday in 1876, and, by the 1880s, most states outside the former Confederacy had legalized it. The Confederate Memorial Day had no uniform date. In the lower South, 26 April, the anniversary of General Joseph E. Johnston's surrender, was common, while other states observed 10 May the date of Stonewall Jackson's death, or 3 June, Jefferson Davis's birthday.

Early Commemorations

The exercises for both holidays were similar in the postwar period, centering on the cemeteries and taking mourning as their main theme. Ladies' memorial associations sponsored the Confederate ceremonies, while GAR posts took charge of the federal exercises. For both Union and Confederate veterans, Memorial Day was a sacred occasion, which generally began with a church service. The exercises then moved to the cemeteries for oratory by distinguished veterans, followed by the grave decoration. The ceremonies concluded with "Taps" and a twentyone-gun salute.

Despite these similarities, the messages of the early Memorial Days differed. The GAR made clear that the federal holiday honored the Union dead only and celebrated the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery. It made observance of the holiday mandatory for members, and even posted armed soldiers to prevent the decoration of Confederate graves. The ladies' memorial associations decorated Confederate graves only, while Confederate veterans proclaimed that they had fought not for slavery but to defend their liberty. The veterans even fought over the holiday's name; each side contended that its holiday had the most legitimate claim to the designation of Memorial Day. When the federal holiday became popularly known as Decoration Day, the GAR campaigned against the new name, arguing that it did not properly reflect the day's purpose.


As Reconstruction ended, however, Union and Confederate veterans began to find common cause in keeping their sacrifice before an increasingly indifferent public. They condemned the desecration of Memorial Day with recreation and sports, and instituted military parades to attract crowds. The former foes also turned to each other for recognition of their valor and to recapture the camaraderie of battle. The 1880s saw a spate of blue-gray reunions, often held on Memorial Day. Richmond's Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans even sent a delegation in 1886 to Brooklyn Memorial Day exercises marking the death of General Ulysses S. Grant. On Memorial Day 1895, Chicago's ex-Confederate Association dedicated the first Confederate monument outside the South to honor Confederates who had died in a prison camp and been buried in Oak Woods Cemetery. The city's leading businessmen welcomed ex-Confederate officers, and tens of thousands of Chicagoans turned out for the dedication.

This reconciliation was clearly for white veterans only. Across Oak Woods from the ceremonies at the Confederate monument, the black John Brown post of the GAR held its annual Memorial Day exercises before a much smaller crowd. It was left to black veterans to remind Americans that they, too, had fought for the Union and for freedom for African Americans, facts increasingly ignored by white veterans. African Americans had to join segregated GAR posts even in the North, and in the South white and black GAR posts held separate ceremonies for the federal holiday.

Diversification of the Holiday

Diverse Americans embraced Memorial Day in the late nineteenth century. Ethnic Americans honored their countrymen who had fought in the Civil War with exercises that combined expressions of ethnic and American patriotism. Many Americans adopted the custom of decorating the graves of relatives on Memorial Day, beginning its transformation into Decoration Day, a more general day of the dead.

The day also served political purposes. It became customary for the president to speak at the GAR's exercises at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt used his address to justify the American conquest of the Philippines. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian, caused a national stir by declining the GAR's annual invitation but agreeing to speak at Arlington just five days later at the dedication of a Confederate monument. Wilson ultimately attended both ceremonies, as did the commander in chief of the GAR, in another show of reconciliation.

Both Memorial Days continued to be important throughout the first half of the twentieth century. As the last veterans died, however, the holidays declined in significance, hitting a nadir during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Congress in 1968 moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, paving the way for it to become the kick-off to summer vacation. Most Americans observe the holiday by holding barbecues, traveling, or shopping.

Nevertheless, Memorial Day continues to be meaningful to veterans, who still observe the federal holiday by decorating graves and parading. Likewise, Confederate Memorial Day is still commemorated in some fashion in most southern states. Although an ever smaller number of Americans decorate the graves of their parents and grandparents on Memorial Day, it remains for many the American day of the dead.

See also: Fourth of July, Labor Day, Patriotism and Leisure


Albanese, Catherine. "Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation." American Quarterly 26 (October 1974): 386–398.

Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2001.

Cherry, Conrad. "Two American Sacred Ceremonies: Their Implications for the Study of Religion in America." American Quarterly 21 (Winter 1969): 739–754.

Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Kinney, Martha E. "'If Vanquished I Am Still Victorious': Religious and Cultural Symbolism in Virginia's Confederate Memorial Day Celebrations, 1866–1930." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 106 (Summer 1998): 237–266.

Litwicki, Ellen M. America's Public Holidays, 1865–1920. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

O'Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Warner, W. Lloyd. American Life: Dream and Reality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Ellen M. Litwicki

Memorial Day

views updated Jun 11 2018


MEMORIAL DAY (May 30), or Decoration Day, began in 1868 when members of the Grand Army of the Republic heeded the request of their commander, General John A. Logan, to decorate the graves of their fallen compatriots. It has since become the day on which the United States honors the dead of all its wars and is observed as a legal holiday in most states. National services

are held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington, Virginia. In 2000 President Bill Clinton asked the nation to endorse a humanitarian organization's addition of a moment of silence to the holiday, designating 3 p.m. local time for a minute of quiet reflection on the meaning of America's war dead.


Litwicki, Ellen M. America's Public Holidays, 1865–1920. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

SeddieCogswell/h. s.

See alsoHolidays and Festivals ; Nationalism .

Memorial Day

views updated May 14 2018

Me·mo·ri·al Day • n. a day on which those who died in active military service are remembered, traditionally observed on May 30 but now officially observed on the last Monday in May. Also called (esp. formerly) Decoration Day. ∎  (also Confederate Memorial Day) (in the Southern states) any of various days (esp. the fourth Monday in April) on which similar remembrances are observed.

Memorial Day

views updated May 23 2018

Memorial Day in the US, a day on which those who died on active service are remembered, usually the last Monday in May, but on other days in some Southern states; it was originally a Union holiday after the Civil War of 1861–5.

About this article

Memorial Day

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic