Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Memorial Day - A More Complete History

You may have read the truncated version of the history of Memorial Day on line yesterday. It was dismaying; to say the least. Here is the history of Memorial Day as covered by Yahoo news;

“A few years after the end of the Civil War, May 30 was established as "Decoration Day" -- a day to decorate veterans' graves with flowers. May 30 may have been the selected day because flowers would be in bloom throughout the country, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.

In 1971, Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday and placed on the last Monday in May, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website says.

In December 2000, the president signed into law The National Moment of Remembrance Act.”

That’s it. They left out some important pieces of how the holiday became Memorial Day: traditionally; before it was turned into just another 3 day weekend. Let’s examine the history of that tradition.

They are incorrect in stating that "a few years" after the Civil War had ended people began flooding the cemeteries to honor the fallen. In the South it began with the first anniversary of the wars end and was called “Confederate Memorial Day”. It was first celebrated in 1866 on April 26th. That date was chosen by Mrs. Elizabeth Rutherford Ellis. April 26th is the anniversary of the final Confederate defeat at Bennett Place, North Carolina. It was there that General Sherman accepted the sword of Confederate General Johnston. For most of the people of the South, this is the true date on which the military hostilities ceased; not in early April with Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse.

That first effort in 1866 was organized by the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia.  A woman named Maryann Williams (no relation to me) was the Secretary of that Association and lobbied hard for the state legislature to pass an Act marking the date as an official observance. It was quickly accomplished. Within months all of the former states of the Confederacy had followed suit. The holiday is still marked in several of the former Confederate States on April 26th, rather than late May. In Texas it is also known as Defender’s Day. In North and South Carolina the holiday was observed on May 10th until about 15 or 20 years ago when I first arrived here. That has changed drastically with the influx of us "Yankees".

By 1868 the Northern states were clamoring for their own holiday to honor their fallen. General John Logan, Commander of the Union Civil War Veterans fraternity known as the Grand Army of the Republic, began the Memorial Day holiday which was observed for so many years on the 30th of May. The General stated that “it was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South in perpetuating the memory of their friends who had died for the cause they thought just and right.” These eloquent words; spoken so soon after the hostilities had ended serve to mark the deep respect which the Northern and Southern soldiers had for one another. The war had been brutal, and none knew that better than the veterans of both sides. 

After World War One had ended we got Armistice Day, which marked the end of that conflict. Then there was the problem of the two part victory over Germany in May 1945 (VE Day) and then Japan (VJ Day) in August of the same year, ending World War Two. So, we now had the need for at least 5 holidays to honor our nation’s war dead; plus any days which would be necessary to mark future wars we might engage in. Something needed to change. And, so it did.

By the early 1960’s most of the country was celebrating the holiday on the 30th of May; with the exception of the 11 southern states. They were still observing the holiday between April 26th and May 10th. That changed in the early 1970's.

But, in reality, the full story of the current tradition of Memorial Day is simply that the playing field got too crowded for a separate Day of Remembrance for each of the wars we fought; or were likely to fight, in the future. By 1971 it was declared a 3 day holiday; more out of a desire for a 3 day holiday than to honor the fallen.

It is interesting to note that some of the Southern states have held onto their traditional Day of Remembrance, while the rest of us have opted for convenience and an extra day off.  Well, no matter what date they choose, the fallen will always be honored in the “hearts and minds” of people like me who have the freedom to write articles like this about the nuances of honoring the things which they have actually done. We are lucky to have been the benefactors of their sacrifice.

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