The Roots of Memorial Day

Introduction: In this article, Jane Hampton Cook describes the origins of Memorial Day as a way to honor deceased veterans of the Civil War. Jane is a presidential historian and author of ten books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Her works can be found at Janecook.com. She is also the host of Red, White, Blue and You.

Researching Civil War ancestors can lead to discoveries about how Americans coped with the loss of their loved ones in war. Days of memorial originated after the Civil War when Americans in both Northern and Southern states honored their war dead in ceremonies and special days set aside for remembrance. “Decoration Day” became the day to place flowers and flags on veterans’ graves.

Photo: graves decorated with flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 2008
Photo: graves decorated with flags at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, 2008. Credit: Remember; Wikimedia Commons.

Although these memorial activities were taking place on different days in different states, 30 years after the Civil War veterans in both the North and the South began to fear that those who had died during the Civil War would be forgotten and these memorial days would cease to exist.

In 1897, a Southern newspaper in Mississippi carried an editorial about this concern. The author feared that the cost of freedom would be forgotten and that days of memorial were being replaced with the pleasantries of picnics and other fun social gatherings. His solution was to observe an annual day of remembrance on a Sunday to ensure that church services would remember the war dead.

An article about Memorial Day, Leader newspaper article 1 September 1897
Leader (Brookhaven, Mississippi), 1 September 1897, page 3

This editorial stated:

“Shall Memorial day be relegated into obscurity, becoming itself only a memory?” is a matter that has been under consideration in various states for some time past, the ground being taken that the day set apart for honoring the memory of dead heroes is made more of a time for jollification than for paying tribute to those who fell in defense of freedom. It is suggested that a Memorial day be observed on the last Sunday in May, when services can be held in the various churches and the tributes from the living to the dead placed on green mounds in the different cemeteries.”

In the same decade, a similar sentiment was echoed in a Northern newspaper in Minnesota. By this time, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) had formed as a fraternal organization made up of veterans from the Union Army, the United States Navy and Marines, and the Revenue Cutter Service from the Civil War. They began meeting at encampments annually. By the 1890s, more than 9,000 were attending the annual state encampment in Minnesota. This article reported on the annual Minnesota encampment that served as a reunion for the Civil War veterans.

An article about Memorial Day, Little Falls Transcript newspaper article 18 March 1892
Little Falls Transcript (Little Falls, Minnesota), 18 March 1892, page 3

The author of this article noted:

“Facts are stubborn things, and try as we may to convince others and ourselves that we are not growing old, the halting step and the gray heads are constant reminders that we are no longer the boys of ’61. With these reminders constantly before us the question as to who will carry forward the work of our cherished organization when the last old comrade shall have ‘passed on,’ naturally presents itself.”

In this article, one of the GAR chaplains, the Rev. Henry S. Bilbie, praised the “almost unanimous attention paid to Memorial Day and Memorial Sabbath.”

Nearly all of the 159 GAR posts throughout Minnesota had organized Memorial Day events and its members attended Sunday services for Memorial Day.

Fearing that the next generation would forget those who had died in the Civil War, these veterans wanted to pass along their patriotic fervor to school children.

The GAR encampment encouraged its members to contact their local schools to set aside a day for patriotic songs and celebrations as well as activities to memorialize those who had died in service to their country. The goal was “to awaken and foster the spirit of patriotism in the youth of the state.”

They also wanted “decoration and Memorial Days” to be observed by children in public schools as much as possible.

Rev. Henry S. Bilbie said:

“More potent than the Memorial Day exercises themselves, may these exercises of the schools be made and if properly conducted, may prove not only a very interesting feature of the anniversary, but of incalculable good to the future of the Republic so dear to every old soldier.”

Indeed, these children would grow up to become the World War I generation.

Thanks to the commitment of Civil War veterans in both the North and the South, Memorial Day survived and became a unified national holiday to mourn all U.S. military personnel who died while serving their country. In 1971, Congress standardized Memorial Day to be observed on the last Monday of May.

Note on the header image: “Orphans decorating their fathers’ graves in Glenwood Cemetery, Philadelphia, on Decoration Day,” 1876. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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