As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, it might be prudent to remember what we are celebrating. The holiday, originally called Decoration Day, began during the Civil War as a time to remember those who fell, on either side. The original name reflected the habit of “decorating” soldier’s graves with flowers and may have begun as early as June 3, 1861 in Warrenton, VA. Another early claim was for 1862 in Savannah, GA and for July 4, 1864 in Boalsburg, PA. There are other claims for the original day, but Memorial Day historian David Bright has called all of these “apocryphal legends.”
Bright also believes that the first widely publicized occurrence was on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC and was created primarily by recently freed slaves (“freedmen”). During the war, the graves of 257 Union POW’s had been hastily covered inside the city and left to rot. A group of black freedmen, along with Union troops and white northern ministers, gathered to cover these sites with proper dignity and shelter. As Bright wrote, “This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet and their songs what the war had been about.”
The first official recognition of the practice is recorded on May 5, 1868, when General John A. Logan, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed Decoration Day to be observed annually and nationally on May 30, a date chosen since it was not the anniversary of any major battle. That year, 183 cemeteries in 27 states celebrated the event; the next year there were 336.
The term “Memorial” Day began in 1882, but it was nearly a century later that it became official. On June 28, 1967, Congress gave it official status, and one year later to the day, they passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving it to the last Monday in May (ostensibly for a three-day weekend).
Of course, the significance of the day far transcends a vacation. The date was created to honor Americans killed in war from both sides of the Civil War and, subsequently, for all those who died in military service from the beginnings of the country. This covers a lot of ground, but America was never a militaristic society. From the start, America had opposed large standing armies in peacetime and had isolated the professional military to such an extent that it found itself usually removed from the body politic. The caricature of the infamous “man on horseback,” representing a military coup or regime, so common elsewhere, was always a nightmare to the American political culture. So why a major day honoring the dead and their wars?
As with the rest of the political globe, the U.S. has engaged in numerous armed conflicts. America’s military enemies, over time, would cover a sizable percentage of the nations on earth, some more than once. For a democracy opposed to the military in principle, and with an isolationist history, the U.S. armed services have been very busy. Consider these enemies: Native Americans from all tribes (about four centuries), Loyalists in the Revolution, England twice, The Confederacy (or Union, depending upon perspective), Mexico three times (1846, 1914, 1916), Germany twice, Spain, Russia twice (intervention 1918-20, Cold War vs. Soviet Russia), Austria-Hungary, Japan, East European Axis members, Italy, China, Korea, Vietnam, interventions in the Middle East since 1982 (nineteen), and Afghanistan.
That takes care of most of the major players, but there are also “little” wars against smaller countries and guerrillas, such as: naval/marine expeditions of the nineteenth century (about 100), interventions in Central America after 1898 (about 25, especially Panama, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Nicaragua), The Philippines (1899- 1913), plus such even lesser excursions as in Lebanon (1958) and Grenada (1983).
Characteristically, Memorial Day wasn’t meant to honor all of these multiple military operations, but, as a matter of record, they deserve at least some recognition along with the great wars of the American past. These latter normally are confined to the “Big Three”: the Civil War and both world wars. Thinking about American dead in war does not normally focus on, say, Nicaragua or The Philippines, but almost always on these climactic contests.
Throughout all of this, the United States has emerged not only quite fortunate but also politically stable, socially intact, safe from foreign invasion, and extremely prosperous. This is quite a record compared to the rest of the world which, except perhaps England, has suffered multiple invasions, occupations, revolutions, depressions and, to this day, large-scale departures of its own people to unknown places.
America has also been saved the wartime sufferings known elsewhere. World War II claimed 75 million lives; only 415,000 were Americans. During the 1940-41 air “blitz,” England itself was bombed 76 days/nights in a row; that’s 76 “9/11’s” by our standards. The Cold War was won in 1991 without a single shot between the belligerents.
There are serious problems at home, but the symbolism of Memorial Day has persisted for a century and a half, namely: death, sacrifice, rebirth. This has been called the American “civil religion.” May it prosper.