What Have They Done to Memorial Day?
By ROBERT SCOTT
This year Memorial Day will be celebrated on Monday, May 27.
With its roots deep in the Civil War, for more than a century this solemn holiday was traditionally observed on May 30
Ever since 1971, however, in a concession to expediency and a rebuke to tradition, Congress shifted Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Thanks to the Uniform Holidays Act, the holiday can now fall on any of the eight days between May 24 and May 31.
On this coming Monday, May 27 at Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama will attend ceremonies to remember and honor the dead.
Marking Memorial Day at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery in Virginia, on the evening of Saturday, May 25, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts will light candles (called "luminaria") placed at each of the more than 15,300 graves of mostly unidentified Civil War soldiers. Similarly, the 3,553 graves at the Fredericksburg Confederate Cemetery will be illuminated.
Its origins virtually forgotten, for many Americans Memorial Day is no longer a day of remembrance. Instead, it’s just another three-day weekend holiday--an occasion for barbecues, picnics and shopping mall sales.
Regrettably, the number of communities that celebrate the holiday in the old-fashioned way with colorful parades grows smaller each year, especially among cities and larger communities.
Manhattan’s time-honored parade up Fifth Avenue and the Bronx parade on the Grand Concourse are no more, although the Brooklyn and Little Neck-Douglaston communities still host sizable parades on Long Island.
In Westchester, the parade tradition is also still strong. Parades were held last year in Ardsley, Bedford Hills, Bronxville, Dobbs Ferry, Eastchester, Elmsford, Harrison, Irvington, Mount Kisco, New Castle, New Rochelle, Pelham, Pleasantville, Scarsdale, Tarrytown, White Plains, and the Crestwood and Ferncliff Manor sections of Yonkers.
Lest We Forget
Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, 60 percent of them on the Union side and 40 percent on the Confederate side, making it the bloodiest event in U.S. history, and exceeding by more than 50 percent the military deaths in World War II.
Until the Korean War, the death toll of the Civil War nearly equaled the total number killed in all previous U.S. wars. If the same percentage of Americans had died in the Vietnam War as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the somber black wall of Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
By the Civil War’s end, hardly an American family had not been touched by its appalling death toll. About 6 percent of white males of military age in the North and about 18 percent of their southern counterparts died in the war. Virulent infectious diseases--typhoid fever, dysentery and pneumonia--killed more than twice the number of battle deaths.
Death on such a grand scale cried out for meaning and emotional justification. Well before the Civil War ended, women on both sides had begun rituals of remembrance with processions to local cemeteries to decorate the graves of Civil War veterans. Thus was born the national holiday of Decoration Day that would later be called Memorial Day.
In 1866, veterans who had served in the Union Army formed an organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The following year, Gen. John A. "Black Jack" Logan was elected its national commander.
With a membership approaching a half-million, for many years to come the GAR would be a major national political force. Its final encampment was held on August 31, 1949, with six of the 19 living Union Army veterans in attendance. The GAR disbanded in 1956, after the death of Albert Woolson, the last surviving veteran, at age 107.
On May 5, 1868, General Logan proclaimed Decoration Day as a holiday and set the first official observance for May 30, closing his General Oder No. 11 to the GAR "with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year." Celebrated for the first time on May 30 of 1868, the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a specific battle.
Some two dozen communities have since claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday. Evidence also supports the claim that Southern women were decorating graves of their war dead even before the end of hostilities.
How the Holiday Began
On April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a group of women visited a cemetery to place flowers on the grave of Confederate soldiers killed at the battle of Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers. Concerned over the bare gravesites, the women also placed flowers on their graves.
Additional claimants include Macon and Columbus in Georgia, and Carbondale, Illinois, where a stone in the cemetery claims that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of General Logan.
In 1966, after much research, the Erie Canal village of Waterloo, N.Y., was proclaimed the birthplace of Decoration Day. Supporters of its claim assert that earlier observances at other locations were either informal, not community-wide or were one-time events.
On May 26, 1966, just in time for that year's celebration, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a presidential proclamation recognizing Waterloo as the birthplace of the holiday.
In the summer of 1865, Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo druggist, suggested that the Civil War dead in local cemeteries should be remembered by placing flowers on their graves. Nothing came of this until the following spring, when he brought his idea to Seneca County clerk and former Civil War general John B. Murray.
Waterloo's flags were lowered to half-staff, and draped with evergreen sprays and black mourning ribbons on May 5, 1866. Local civic societies and residents marched to the village's three cemeteries, where ceremonies were held and the graves were decorated. In 1868, Waterloo joined other communities in holding their Decoration Day observance on May 30, as the GAR's General Logan had urged.
Despite New York’s claim, the tiny central-Pennsylvania hamlet of Boalsburg insists the custom of honoring Civil War dead began there in 1864, while the Civil War still raged. On a pleasant October Sunday that year, a teenage girl named Emma Hunter brought flowers to the Zion Lutheran Church cemetery to place on the grave of her father, a surgeon in the Union Army.
Nearby, Elizabeth Meyer was placing flowers on the grave of her son, Pvt. Amos Meyer, who had died on the final day of battle at Gettysburg. Emma put a few of her flowers on Amos’s grave. In turn, Mrs. Meyer placed some of her flowers on Dr. Hunter’s grave.
United by loss, the two women agreed to meet the next year on the Fourth of July to repeat the ceremony and also to place flowers on undecorated graves. On that date, they were joined by other residents. Dr. George Hall, a local clergyman, offered a prayer, and every grave in the cemetery was decorated with flags and flowers. The custom became an annual event, soon copied by neighboring communities.
. In the beginning, the South refused to recognize the May 30 federal holiday, and honored Confederate dead on other dates, including the birthdays of Gen. Robert E. Lee, January 29, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, June 3. Michigan made Decoration Day an official state holiday in 1871. By 1890, every other northern state had done the same.
The Holiday Today
Memorial Day, the alternative name of the holiday, was first used in 1882, but did not displace Decoration Day until after World War II. It became the official name of the holiday in 1967.
The following year, Congress made wholesale changes in four holidays to take effect at the federal level in 1971. In addition to shifting Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May, Washington's Birthday was moved from February 22 to the third Monday in February (and celebrated as Presidents Day), and Columbus Day was changed from October 12 to the second Monday in October.
Formerly called Armistice Day, Veterans Day was also shifted from November 11 (the date hostilities of World War I ended in 1918) to the fourth Monday of October. Congress moved this holiday back to November 11 in 1978 because too many other nations continued to celebrate the original date.
The late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a Medal of Honor recipient who lost an arm fighting in Italy during World War II, introduced a bill in the Senate in 1999 to restore the Memorial Day holiday to its original date, May 30. His bill and subsequent bills introduced by him at each session of Congress until his death in 2012 were allowed to die in committee.
Sadly, Memorial Day in America is now a shadow of its former self.
Robert Scott is a semi-retired book publisher and local historian. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.