Memorial Day Weekend has become a rite of summer, when the kids are out of school, parents are having barbecues and the entire country seems to be preparing for summer fun. The meaning of Memorial Day – which is to honor the men and women who gave their lives for America – is usually remembered through parades and ceremonies. But did you ever wonder about how Memorial Day came to be? The holiday is rooted in Decoration Day, a day of remembrance inspired by local celebrations honoring those who died during the Civil War.
Decoration day was about paying tribute to the men who died in the Civil War. Families decorated graves with flowers and wreathes. One of the first Decoration Day events was organized by former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. African American citizens of Charleston set out to decorate the graves of 257 Union prisoners who died at the Charleston Race Course, which served as a Confederate prison during the War. Thousands of freedmen showed up, including nearly 3000 black students, to build an enclosure and memorial, with an arch labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Scholars believe this was the first official Memorial Day celebration.
One scholar, David Blight, said “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. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Women in North and South had been active participants in the war. They managed farms and businesses all while maintaining their households and raising the children. During the Civil War they created voluntary associations like the Women’s Relief Society and United States Christian Commission that took active roles in their communities. It was during this time, that women began adopting a Victorian era ideal of creating parks to bury their dead, with frequent visits to their loved ones’ graves. This grew into a practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers. Many believe this custom was also influenced by German Catholic observations of All Saints Day. Although many cities claim to have been the inspiration for the Decoration Day tradition, no city can claim ownership. The local tradition grew in northern and southern states to the extent that it was already highly ritualized by the end of the Civil War.
Southern women took up the cause of Confederate burial grounds and ceremonies. In 1866, the Columbus Ladies’ Memorial Association trumpeted their cause by asking women throughout the South to observe Memorial Day. The momentum grew and within less than a decade many towns across the nation were remembering veterans with parades, grave decorating, speeches and ceremonies.
During the post-Reconstruction era, women are believed to have advocated for keeping Memorial Day a solemn event. By 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic called for a national celebration. As the years passed and the bitter memories of the Civil War faded, North and South started to celebrate the day together. The holiday was celebrated by everyone, but did not become a federal holiday until 1971. Many Americans continue to hue to the original purpose of the day, by visiting gravesides and commemorating their family members.
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