Memorial Day: A Fading Tradition of Shared National Experience


Amongst the finest and most noble traditions of the American people is the commemoration of Memorial Day. Originally known as “Decoration Day,” the modern Memorial Day holiday originates primarily from the last days of the American Civil War, the bloodiest and most traumatic conflict in American history. Although there is still much dispute over the location of the “very first” Memorial Day tribute, there was undoubtedly an explosion of communities across the country that attempted to pay homage to those whom they had lost in battle.

Almost every town, every family, and every individual had experienced the war in a meaningful way. Places like Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, and Manassas experienced vast armies marching through and doing battle. Some had lost nearly all their young men, and almost every dinner table had a vacant chair. It was natural that Americans, both North and South, would attempt in some way to mourn for those lost and acknowledge the sacrifices that they witnessed almost daily.

Though the origins of Memorial Day are obscure, one event in particular sparked what ended up becoming a national holiday. On May 30, 1865, the fiery anti-slavery activist James Redpath led a group of black schoolchildren to the lonely, deserted graves of recently buried Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina, to place flowers on the graves of men who had recently and directly made the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom. Historian Paul H. Buck wrote in The Road to Reunion: 1865-1900: “Quietly the ugly mounds were covered with the flowers strewn by black hands which knew only that the dead they were honoring had raised them from a condition of servitude.”

Suddenly, their was a movement across the Northern states to create similar tributes to those who had died for their country, and it was not long before most states began to make May 30 the official Memorial Day. This movement was greatly aided by the huge number of veteran organizations that wanted to ensure that the meaning and sacrifice of the war would not be forgotten. The Grand Army of the Republic, the largest and most politically influential veteran organization in the country, made the establishment of Memorial Day as a national holiday a priority.

In 1868, GAR Commander-in-Chief John A. “Black Jack” Logan called for the creation of a national Memorial Day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late war of the rebellion, and whose bodies lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

The GAR went into action and was instrumental in both ensuring that Memorial Day would be nationally recognized, and also in preserving worthy and serious monuments to those who had fought for the Union Army during the war. The huge number of finely crafted statues of Union generals and heroes now seen in Washington, D.C., and throughout the nation are in large part due to the influence of this powerful group.

Although the original Memorial Day commemorations were filled with sectional and political partisanship, they eventually came to be a time of reconciliation between the regions. Francis Miles Finch’s 1867 poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” movingly described the suffering of both sides of the war and of spoke of eventual forgiveness. The poem became a staple in classrooms and Memorial Day gatherings.

Memorial Day became more than just a day of mournful remembrance; it was a time when families and communities had a chance to come together and participate in shared experience. Writing of the generation that grew up in the shadow of the Civil War, historian Paul Buck wrote in 1937:

A visit to the graves of the dead was not merely a sad rite of remembrance, but also a diversion. The excitement of speechmaking, the mingling with crowds, the appeal of marching men, the pageantry of schoolchildren bearing flowers, and the playing of martial music made Memorial Day a recreational feature in the lives of our mothers and fathers.

Thus was created a holiday that served a duality of purposes: to both appropriately mourn and commemorate those who had made a great sacrifice for the American people and would serve as a day for the living to enjoy the blessings of being citizens of a free country.

Americans in the generations following the Civil War mostly appreciated the recreational aspect of Memorial Day without forgetting its deeper meaning or turning it entirely into a time for frivolity. In fact, when President Grover Cleveland—who had escaped military service during the Civil War—used Memorial Day to go fishing in 1888, much of the nation excoriated him. This simple incident played a major role in his electoral defeat that yearaccording to historian James M. McPherson.

Sadly, trivialization of this somber holiday has become progressively worse a century later as its meaning increasingly becomes hollowed out. In part, this stems from the fact that the holiday was moved from May 30 to the last Monday of May in 1971. If the country truly wants to do a better job of preserving the seriousness of the holiday, there may be some merit in moving it back to the original May 30 date. But in many ways, this may do very little to patch the far more serious problem of the decrease in civic participation of American citizens who have been taught little of the country’s past, and who perhaps see outward displays of patriotism as unseemly. On Saturday, the Democrat Party Twitter account tweeted out a glamour picture of President Barack Obama eating an ice cream cone in front of adoring cameramen with the line, “Happy Memorial Day weekend, everyone!”

Even CNN’s Jake Tapper, no conservative Republican, called this out as a distortion of what the day is supposed to be.

But the anger over this incident will likely be mild at best compared to President Cleveland’s fishing trip. The reason is that for most of the country, there is very little connection between Memorial Day and a shared sense of loss, a shared sense of sacrifice. The number of Americans who have any connection to the military has become increasingly tiny.

As was noted recently in the Los Angeles Times:

Most of the country has experienced little, if any, personal impact from the longest era of war in U.S. history. But those in uniform have seen their lives upended by repeated deployments to war zones, felt the pain of seeing family members and comrades killed and maimed, and endured psychological trauma that many will carry forever, often invisible to their civilian neighbors.

Given the growing and worrying gap between America’s civilian population and its military, which is unlikely to abate, given the all-volunteer nature of the force, it is important for American educators to teach the next generations about the sacrifices that have been made for them; soldiers need to be invited to classrooms, and students need to know what those soldiers faced when they went to war.

If Americans today wish to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, while also making the day enjoyable to kick off the summer, there are numerous activities that can be participated in to accomplish both. Attending a local parade, placing flowers on a soldier’s grave, or perhaps even traveling to the nation’s capitol to visit Arlington National Cemetery are certainly in keeping with Memorial Day’s best traditions. But most importantly, the National Moment of Remembrance, to be observed at 3:00 p.m. local time, is an opportunity for everyone to at least participate in a small, private act of respect and recognition for those who have died for our country.