The Truth and the Myths of Memorial Day

Many myths and an abundance of little known truths surround the origins of the American holiday of Memorial Day.

The modern interpretation of the holiday is that of a day of remembrance for all those who have died in the military service of the United States including those who perished in wars both recent and long passed. But it was not always so, and stories of the origins of the holiday vary greatly.

One thing that is clear is that the holiday was borne out of the Civil War. Originally called Decoration Day, the first official proclamation of a holiday observance occurred on May 5, 1868, when national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic General John Logan declared that May 30 was to be designated as a day to decorate with flowers the graves of fallen comrades who had died in the defense of the Union. On that first Decoration Day, May 30, 1868, 5,000 visitors to
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Arlington National Cemetery decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, 20,000 in number, and various accounts refer to speeches from either future Presidents and then Generals James A. Garfield and/or Ulysses S. Grant. While it quickly became a tradition that the President of the United States would attend the Arlington Cemetery ceremony each year, there is no mention anywhere that can be found that then President Andrew Johnson attended that first event.

One interesting fact, or myth, about the choosing of late May as the date for such a celebration was that it was picked because at that time of year flowers were in bloom through most of the country, and that graves virtually everywhere across the land could be laden with flowers.

But where was the very first event or celebration of Decoration Day? Over two dozen US cities and towns claim to be the actual birthplace of what is now Memorial Day, one of which is Waterloo, NY, which was, correctly or not, and likely not, declared to be the holiday’s birthplace in a Congressional resolution and an official pronouncement made by President Lyndon B. Johnson in celebration of the holiday in 1966. The story of that very first celebration in Waterloo is a compelling one, though it is more than likely untrue that it was in fact the first.

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Legend has it that a Waterloo druggist by the name of Henry C. Welles suggested to local resident and Civil War hero General John B. Murray that other local residents who perished during that war should be remembered and that the town should decorate the graves of such individuals and further celebrate their heroism. Over a year's time, plans for such an event developed, and in May of 1866, town-wide ceremonies and a parade were held. The event was repeated a year later in 1867, and by 1868 several other communities also held such events, and have
done so annually ever since.

But Waterloo and its neighbors were not alone. A New York Times article in 2012 described more than two dozen other communities that had, in one way or another, claimed to be the first and original spot to begin such observances. One such community, Boalsburg, Pa., even claimed to have begun such events as early as October, 1864.

And, such observances were not limited to have begun in the North. In fact, several Confederate state communities also claim to have been the first to create a Decoration or Memorial day observance. There is even a conflict between “dueling” cities of Columbus, Columbus, Mississippi and Columbus, Georgia, each of which has claimed to have begun engaging in marching (if not a true parade), the decoration of military graves, and other such ceremonies, as early as April of 1866. An even earlier Times article, from 1868, is said to have reported that by 1868 northern communities began what they termed “retaliating” to southern commemorations with events of their own.

But where and when, and under what circumstances, did the first true event occur, honoring the dead soldiers of the Civil War? A compelling argument was made by Professor David W. Blight in his 2002 book, “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory”, for the first true commemoration to have occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, in May of 1865. And it was done by a large group of former slaves who wished to express their thanks for the efforts of Union soldiers in securing their freedom.

The area of Charleston had been home to a mass grave where hundreds of dead Union soldiers had hastily been buried during the Civil War, and in April of 1865, a group of 28 former slaves began work on a project to transform a portion of an old racetrack that had been turned into a war prison into a respectful burial ground. They dug neat rows of graves, built an enclosure around the grounds, and fully landscaped the area. The fence gate and archway around the graveyard bore the slogan "Martyrs of the Race Course". 257 bodies were excavated from the mass grave and reburied, and as many as 10,000 people attended what was likely to have been the actual first Decoration Day parade and ceremonies, held on May 1, 1865. There were

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speeches, picnic lunches, Union infantry troops marched, and baskets of flowers and wreaths were carried to the new cemetery, and as a newspaper article quoted by Prof. Blight reported, when the event had concluded,

“…the holy mounds – the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them – were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”

And so, Memorial Day was born in May of 1865, or maybe even earlier?

About theHoundDawg

For many years as a lawyer, I saw much of the good and bad of society, and did what I could to right many wrongs. The lack of understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, as evidenced by such events as the election of King W as president, (who as such far surpassed the evil of richard nixon but not quite that of ronald reagan) lead me in a new direction, to spend my time trying to understand what is happening to our society, to try as best I can to spread my insights to others, and along the way to maybe even eke out a living through the internet.
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