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  • Writer's pictureMGMUS

First the War, Then the Memorial: The History of the Holiday

Near the end of the Civil War, widows started a ritual. They would decorate their fallen soldiers' graves, marking them wreaths, flowers, and other memorabilia. Although decorating loved ones' graves was nothing new, the ritual took on its own significance, as the public came to associate it with patriotism and commemorating sacrifice. The beginning of Memorial Day as a holiday has, however, remained controversial, to the point that there are two different institutions dedicated to studying it: the Center for Memorial Day

Research at Columbus State University in Georgia and the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi. Academics at not one but two institutions are still finding reasons to study Memorial Day, indicative of the convolution around its origins.

For nearly a century, Americans in the North and South unofficially celebrated their own form of the holiday that would become Memorial Day. At the time, though it was Decoration Day. An opportunity to visit cemeteries and to gather in honor of those who had fought and died in battle, Memorial Day became a federally recognized holiday in 1971.

During the time leading up to its legislative confirmation, and in the years since, at least twenty-five different locations have registered a claim with the US Department of Veterans' Affairs, each one making a case as to why it is the birthplace of Memorial Day. Complicating matters further, Southern versions of Memorial Day quickly took on a less-than-conciliatory tone. As the Ladies' Memorial Association organized the holiday in the South, it became to honor not only the dead but the "Lost Cause" and the Confederate rebellion as well.

As early as 1868, there was a push among Southerners to affix the word "Confederate" to the holiday. They recognized "Confederate Memorial Day" instead of Memorial Day, which they claimed the North had stolen from them. Ten Southern states even chose to mark, from 1916 onward, Memorial Day on June 3rd each year, the birthday of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.

In total opposition to Memorial Day as a Confederate holiday, there is also evidence that recently freed slaves in Charleston set their version of Memorial Day in 1865. The burial site stood on the grounds of a racetrack that had been converted into a prison during the war, where the union soldiers had perished from exposure and disease in poor conditions. On May 1st that year,

they organized a 10,000-strong parade, in recognition of 257 Union soldiers who had died there. As part of the commemoration, the dead were properly re-buried, a fence was built around the gravesite, and an archway was constructed bearing the inscription: “Martyrs of the Race Course.” In the North, meanwhile, groups in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Washington, DC, have both posited claims of their own. Some historians point to Lincoln dedicating the cemetery at Gettysburg, citing the sixteenth president as the creator of the holiday. Others yet point to the dedication of Arlington National Cemetery, emphasizing the symbolism around it, as land that Confederate leader Robert E. Lee forfeited and as the final resting place for approximately 300,000 reburied Union soldiers.

For his part, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Grafton, West Virginia, and Rochester, Wisconsin, however, continue to debate which of their parades has run longest uninterrupted. Because of incomplete record- keeping, and the panache inherent to inventing the holiday that kicks off the summertime in America, it is likely there will never be any clear answers to these debates. That so many would lay claim to it is proof of the significance of Memorial Day to people all around the country.

On this day, we all recognize and honor the sacrifices of all fallen American soldiers, according to our common understanding of Memorial Day.


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