Each and every year, people across the United States mostly set aside their social and political differences to memorialize those who have served to protect and defend the country on Memorial Day.
This Memorial Day, like those that preceded it, will feature men and women from each of the 50 states, and those serving and stationed abroad, visiting cemeteries or memorials, gathering with family and friends, and participating in parades to humbly remember and reflect on those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for America.
Although many people commemorate the day, some are unaware of its origins.
History.com report the tradition began in Waterloo, New York and was subsequently recognized as the official birthplace of Memorial Day by the federal government in 1966.
“Officially, Memorial Day started in Waterloo, N.Y.; that’s according a 1966 law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And there was definitely a local observance of war dead there in 1866,” The Washington Post reports.
The report notes the day’s origin is historically disputed:
In July of 1866, a New York newspaper reported on a “grand gathering” of Union veterans in Salem, Ill. Gen. John A. Logan, head of the fraternal group the Grand Army of the Republic, made a speech, railing against the defeated Confederates and urging rights and protections for freed slaves.
He also angrily noted that “traitors in the South have their gatherings, day after day, to strew garlands of flowers upon the graves of Rebel soldiers.”
Two years later, he proposed the same idea. On May 5, 1868, Logan ordered the first nationwide public holiday on May 30, then known as “Decoration Day,” to honor war dead. A national day honoring American men and women who have died while serving in the military has been observed ever since.
But here’s the thing — there’s no evidence Logan was inspired by or even aware of Waterloo’s observance when he pitched his plan.
So if the South had “their gatherings, day after day,” as Logan once complained, who in the South started it? The answer to that is complicated; according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than two dozen cities, mostly in the South, that claim to be the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
There’s Macon, Ga., and Richmond, Va. And Columbus, Miss., which claims women there decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers on April 25, 1866, inspiring the poem “The Blue and the Gray,” which was published in the Atlantic the next year.
The Post and Courier, however, reports that the holiday originates in Charleston, South Carolina.
According to the report, Charleston was described as “a city of the dead” in the Spring of 1865, in the weeks following the end of the Civil War.
From the Post and Courier:
On a Monday morning that spring, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there.
For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral.
The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing “John Brown’s Body.”
Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day.
On that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.
For years, the ceremony was largely forgotten.
It had been mentioned in some history books, including Robert Rosen’s “Confederate Charleston,” but the story gained national attention when David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, took interest. He discovered a mention of the first Decoration Day in the uncataloged writings of a Union soldier at a Harvard University library.
He contacted the Avery Research Center in Charleston, which helped him find the first newspaper account of the event. An article about the “Martyrs of the Race Course” had appeared in the Charleston Daily Courier the day after the ceremony. Blight was intrigued and did more research. He published an account of the day in his book, “Race and Reunion.” Soon he gave lectures on the event around the country.
“What’s interesting to me is how the memory of this got lost,” Blight said. “It is, in effect, the first Memorial Day and it was primarily led by former slaves in Charleston.”
Three years after the Union soldiers commemorated Decoration Day, southern soldiers began what they called Confederate Memorial Day.
“For the rest of the 19th century, Decoration Day and Confederate Memorial Day existed as separate holidays, perhaps a symbol of the country’s lingering divide. The two holidays were combined and designated a federal holiday in the 20th century,” the Post and Courier reports.
The twin days were later joined, as the nation began to heal from the impacts of the Civil War, and continues to serve as a mending mechanism to bring people together under a higher banner: for remembering and honoring people who have died in service to the country.
“As time went on, the observance instead became known as “Memorial Day,” until 1971, when Congress declared it an official holiday set to fall annually on the last Monday in May. Read more about the history of Memorial Day,” Military.com reports.
It notes the day is both separate and distinct from Veterans Day:
Service members, veterans and their families know there is a big difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. While Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is a day set aside to celebrate all veterans, Memorial Day is a somber holiday dedicated to honor military fallen, with a special focus on those killed during military service or through enemy contact.
Both holidays often include parades, ceremonies and celebrations. But although Memorial Day also traditionally marks the beginning of summer with picnics and parties, many in the military community believe that at least a portion of it should be spent to mourn and honor the fallen.