Memorial Day had its beginnings in Civil War

Reuters News
Posted: May 29, 2011 3:03 PM
Memorial Day had its beginnings in Civil War

By Verna Gates

Birmingham, Ala (Reuters) --- Bands will play, soldiers will march and wreaths will be laid on Monday as America commemorates the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.

While Memorial Day celebrates the brave soldier, it also serves as a reminder of war's grimmest reality.

"Men love war. It's exciting and glorious," said Charleston, South Carolina historian Robert Rosen, but, he added, "There is a price."

In 1866, the Civil War had ended and few wanted to remember the bloody conflict, which killed more than 620,000 men, more than almost all subsequent wars, according to Rosen.

While 24 cities vie for the title of the first Memorial Day celebration, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York, the birthplace in 1966.

Even with Civil War wounds fresh in 1866, Waterloo pharmacist Henry Wells had noted that traffic to the graves of veterans had thinned. He feared a day when people forgot the horrors of war, according to Waterloo historian Caren Cleaveland.

"The first Memorial Day was organized as a day of mourning. The city was draped in black and the parade was solemn," said Cleaveland, chairperson of the American Civil War Memorial in Waterloo.

Originally, May 30 was the celebration day, designated in an 1868 order by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization.

That year, President James Garfield became the first president to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Five thousand joined him in decorating graves on the former estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, according to

In 1971, Congress made designated the last Monday in May as a national holiday for Memorial Day to give Americans a three-day weekend.

Many now consider that weekend the start of the summer season and are more likely to indulge in beaches and barbecues than think about the holiday's original meaning or take part in memorial events.


While the one original goal of the day was reconciliation of the opposing sides in the Civil War, it would take World War One for the South to fully embrace the holiday in lieu of its own designated day.

Many Southern states still recognize a Confederate Memorial Day, though not all on the same dates, for the fallen men in gray.

Southern women are credited in many cities for beginning "Decoration Day" by putting flowers on soldier's graves, a precursor of Memorial Day.

In April of 1862, a group of women and a Michigan chaplain in Arlington Heights, Virginia declared 'How lonely and cheerless the bare graves of the soldiers look." They began an annual pilgrimage to dead fighters' graves with bouquets, according to The Center for Civil War Research.

On the eve of Confederate General Joseph Johnston's expected defeat as the war sputtered to a complete end, Sue Vaughn called on the 'Daughters of the Southland' to gather on April 26, 1865.

They met at the cemetery to 'garland the graves of our fallen braves' in commemoration of their valor and patriotism,' according to The Center for Civil War Research.

The Civil War saw African Americans serving as Union soldiers in significant numbers in the conflict that saw the end of slavery, and Yale historian David W. Wright uncovered evidence freed slaves held what could be considered the first memorial day on May 5, 1865 in Charleston.

They staged a parade 10,000 people strong on a racecourse, once the playground for the wealthy. It had transformed into a prison camp for Union soldiers and the burial ground for 257 of them. The freed slaves marked the day with songs of liberty.

In that case, the first memorial ceremony for America's bloodiest war may have been where the Civil War fighting started -- at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor 150 years ago.

Today, Memorial Day commemorates the dead from every war, including modern day Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)