Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day (previously, but now seldom, called Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States for honoring and mourning the military personnel who have died in the performance of their military duties while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The holiday is observed on the last Monday of May. The holiday was formerly observed on May 30 from 1868 to 1970.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day to honor and mourn those who died while serving in the U.S. Military. Many volunteers place an American flag on graves of military personnel in many cemeteries.
Memorial Day is also considered the unofficial start of summer in the United States, while Labor Day, the first Monday of September, marks the unofficial start of autumn.
Two other days celebrate those who have served or are serving in the U.S. military: Armed Forces Day (which is earlier in May), an unofficial U.S. holiday for honoring those currently serving in the armed forces, and Veterans Day (in November 11), which honors those who have served in the United States Armed Forces.
There are many claimed origins of Memorial Day. The history of Memorial Day in the United States is complex. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes that approximately 25 places claim to have originated the holiday. At Columbus (Georgia) State University there is a Center for Memorial Day Research, and the University of Mississippi incorporates a Center for Civil War Research that has also led research into Memorial Day’s origins. The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. Many of the origination claims are myths, unsupported by evidence, while others are one-time cemetery dedications or funeral tributes. In 2014, one scholarly effort attempted to separate the myths and one-time events from the activities that actually led to the establishment of the federal holiday.
Precedents for Memorial Day set in the South.
According to the United States Library of Congress website, “Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. Records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day.” The earliest southern Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. In following years, the Ladies’ Memorial Association and other groups increasingly focused rituals on preserving Confederate culture and the lost cause of the Confederacy narrative.
• Warrenton, Virginia: On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia, was the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906. This decoration was for the funeral of the first soldier killed in action during the Civil War, John Quincy Marr, who died on June 1, 1861, during a skirmish at Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia.
• Savannah, Georgia: In July 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated the graves at Laurel Grove Cemetery of Colonel, Francis S. Bartow and his comrades who died at Battle of Manassas (First Battle of Bull Run) the year before.
• Jackson, Mississippi: On April 26, 1865, in Jackson, Mississippi, Sue Landon Vaughan supposedly decorated the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. However, the earliest recorded reference to this event did not appear until many years after. Regardless, mention of the observance is inscribed on southeast panel of the Confederate Monument in Jackson, erected in 1891.
• Charleston, South Carolina: On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently freed African-Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers, whose remains they had reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. Historian David W. Blight cites contemporary news reports of this incident in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Although Blight claimed that “African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina,” in 2012, the New York Times suggested that he “has no evidence” that the event in Charleston effectively led to Gen. Logan’s call for the national holiday. Blight said, “I’m much more interested in the meaning that’s being conveyed in that incredible ritual than who’s first.” Accordingly, investigators for Time Magazine, LiveScience, RealClearLife and Snopes have called this conclusion into question.
• Columbus, Georgia: The United States National Park Service and numerous scholars attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to a group of women of Columbus, Georgia. The women were the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus. They were represented by Mary Ann Williams (Mrs. Charles J. Williams) who, as secretary, wrote a letter to press in March 1866 asking their assistance in establishing annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south. The letter was reprinted in several southern states and the plans were noted in newspapers in the north. The date of April 26 was chosen. The holiday was observed in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and elsewhere in Georgia as well as Montgomery, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi, and across the south. In some cities, mostly in Virginia, other dates in May and June were observed. General John A. Logan commented on the observances in a speech to veterans on July 4, 1866 in Salem, Illinois. After Gen.Logan’s General Order No. 11 to the Grand Army of the Republic to observe May 30, 1868, the earlier version of the holiday began to be referred to as Confederate Memorial Day.
• Columbus, Mississippi: A year after the war’s end, in April 1866, four women of Columbus gathered together to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is held by some writers as the inspiration of the original Memorial Day despite its occurring last among the claimed inspirations.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.