Any followers of my blog may have noticed my particular interest in the American Civil War. On this weekend’s celebration of Memorial Day, then, it seems entirely appropriate for me to shed light onto the history of this holiday– one that is known and understood by far too few.
The end of the American Civil War did not immediately bring much absolution to the exhausted American people. With a president shot dead on the cusp of the war’s end, racial tensions high, eleven states bitter and largely impoverished, and over 620,000 men dead, the nation remained unsteady and full of fear. The need for a uniting force, or a variety of commemoration practices to assuage the wounds of war, was evident. “Decoration Day” arose from this very time period as a form of peaceful remembrance for the fallen. The details and focus of the holiday that would eventually come to be known as Memorial Day are a bit clouded, however, as the game of attribution and memory after the Civil War often left the truth glossed over.
The very first Decoration Day was celebrated in May of 1865—just weeks after the war’s official end. African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina were, in fact, the very first to create and celebrate a Decoration Day in a large capacity. On May 1, 1865 thousands of African Americans decorated the graves of “the Martyrs of the Race Course,” a burial ground that lay upon a Prisoner of War camp where over two hundred Union Soldiers perished. This fact, however, is not widely known. As the concept of Decoration Day took root in the country, it seemed there were many voices that wanted to claim the holiday for their own, and use it as a generalized event of reconciliation and reverence to fallen soldiers, conveniently omitting involvement of African Americans in the history of its inception.
From there, the incorporation of Decoration Day as a holiday swept across most states by the 1870s. This day of commemoration universally applied to all those affected by the war. Political differences aside, the large majority of Americans had lost something dear to them over the course of the war, and Memorial Day served as a way to pay homage to what was lost while putting aside the ugliness of the four years of battle. Spring flowers were used to decorate the graves of fallen men, perfectly symbolizing that from the very ground upon which they died, a new nation was being built.
Memorial Day developed into not only a day of flowers rested atop graves, but also a day of parades, picnics, dedications, and speeches. While the tensions of race and politics never truly disappeared, Memorial Day came to be a staple of the “Reconciliation Cause.” Cemeteries usually held the graves of both Northern and Southern soldiers, therefore embodying a physical, tangible place where the two opposing sides met for eternal peace.
Though reconciliation was in effect at this time, the South nonetheless continued to fortify their mission to perpetuate the “Lost Cause.” The focus shifted to monuments of their heroes, such as Stonewall Jackson. They framed their narrative as a romantic land lost on the battlefield, but alive in Southern hearts. Northerners did little to reject this; in fact they often supported the elevation of Southern heroes, all in the name of reunion.
Many Americans in both the North and South used the Memorial Day concept to blur the true implications and causes of the Civil War in order to pave a smoother road into the nation’s future. Struggling to stay apart of that narrative, however, was the “Emancipationist Cause” and the true politics of the violent war in general. While it served as an admirable catalyst for white reconciliation, the majority of Memorial Day celebrations did little in the aim of actual atonement for what came before. Perhaps, however, that was never the point.
David W. Blight, “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South,” in The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture, by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh.