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May 29: Memorial Day, A Brief History

  • Posted by: Alice Bampton
  • Posted Date: May 29, 2017
  • Filed Under: Library News
View of Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

Today, May 29, is celebrated as Memorial Day. But who or what are we remembering? For many of us this holiday marks the beginning of summer with a three day weekend; we celebrate with picnics, fireworks, trips to the shore or a swimming pool and perhaps by shopping the Memorial Day sales. The three day holiday weekend began with the National Holiday Act of 1971 which ruled that four holidays should be celebrated on Mondays – Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day. The Memorial Day holiday, however, has roots that originated just after the Civil War (1861-1865) when it was called Decoration Day. Before that act, Memorial Day was observed on May 30, especially in the North.

In post-Civil War America, numerous families had relationships with dead or injured soldiers, Union and Confederate, and in some locations women would decorate the soldiers’ graves. In Richmond, Va., women formed the Hollywood Memorial Association of the Ladies of Richmond; they helped to establish the Oakwood Memorial Association. The purpose of these two groups was to decorate the graves, both Union and Confederate, in the Hollywood and Oakwood Cemeteries. The same year, 1865, Confederate veterans organized, but the decoration of graves remained women’s work. A year later, in April 1866, a group of women visited a cemetery in Columbus, Miss, to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers; unhappy with the neglected nearby graves of Union soldiers, the women also placed flowers on their graves.

On May 5, 1868, Major General John Alexander Logan (1826-1886) and an organization of Union veterans declared that May 30 should be a day on which graves of the Civil War dead should be decorated with flowers. That year, a large ceremony, presided over by General Ulysses S. Grant and various officials, was held at Arlington National Cemetery. At the conclusion of the speeches, members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and children from a nearby orphanage for Union veterans’ children placed flowers on the graves of more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, while singing hymns and reciting prayers.

From the 1870s on, some observed the holiday as a commemoration of the Civil War dead and others chose to enjoy themselves. By the 1890s May 30 had become more a popular holiday, less a memorial to the Civil War dead. Congress declared Memorial Day, May 30, a federal holiday in 1889. And so it remained until the National Holiday Act of 1971, passed during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson said, “The bill that we sign today will help Americans to enjoy more fully the country that is their magnificent heritage. It will also aid the work of Government and bring new efficiency to our economy. … This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. … They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.” [Note that there is no mention by President Johnson about commemorating Civil War or other soldiers.]

How will you spend Memorial Day?

 

Dig Deeper (Falvey’s holdings): 

Faehtz, E.F.M. The National Memorial Day: A record of Ceremonies Over the Graves of the Union Soldiers, May 29 and 30, 1869. (1870)

Foote, Henry Wilder. Memorial Lessons:  A Sermon Preached at King’s Chapel, Boston, on Sunday, May 29th, 1870, with a List of the Sons of the Church Who Entered the Service of the Country(1870)

Harmond, Richard. P. A History of Memorial Day:  Unity, Discord and the Pursuit of Happiness. (2002)

Shepard, I. F. Memorial Day, May 30, 1870, by Ben. I.F. Shepard … at Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis, Mo. (1870)

 

Dig Deeper online:

 Memorial Day History.” U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

Berenson, Tessa. “Why Do We Celebrate Memorial Day

 

Arlington National Cemetery photograph courtesy of pixabay.com.


We are committed to accuracy and will make appropriate corrections. We apologize for any errors and always welcome input about news coverage that warrants correction. Messages can be e-mailed to alice.bampton@villanova.edu or call (610)519-6997.

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Last Modified: May 29, 2017