This year, Memorial Day falls on May 27. In my far-off childhood, it was fixed on May 30. But like so many other civil holidays, in 1971 it was transferred to the nearest Monday before that date. Nevertheless, despite that switch it retains much of the lustre it had when I was young.
In cemeteries – veterans’ and civilian alike – across these United States, there will be ceremonies praising the valour of our gallant dead in the many wars this nation has fought and continues to fight. In cities and towns throughout the country, veterans, serving troops, and fraternal organisations will parade in honour of their fallen comrades and predecessors.
In both ceremonies and parades, the flag for and under which they fell will be prominently displayed. Where Veterans Day in November honours all who have served in the armed forces, this observance is given up to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. It is also the opening of summer, as numerous cookouts and barbecues coast-to-coast testify.
Our Memorial Day observances, from Arlington National Cemetery to Hollywood’s Forest Lawn, find their roots in the aftermath of the War Between the States. “Decoration Day”, as it was first called, had its origin in the actions of Southern women very soon after the war, who began strewing flowers on the graves of both sides. The New York Tribune reported in 1867 on the women of Columbus, Mississippi, doing so, and the many bereaved took up the practice in the North.
So rapidly popular did it become (over two dozen locales claim the honour of being the first to do it) that the following year the head of the Union veterans’ organisation, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), proclaimed that it should be observed every May 30. In 1873 New York became the first state to make it an official holiday – and by 1890 most northern states had done so. The South – still bearing the scar of war and reconstruction – opted to honour its own dead on other days: January 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi; May 10 in North and South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Nevertheless, the Decoration Day phenomenon became an important part in sewing up the emotional wounds of the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. Robert Haven Schauffler, in his 1911 anthology on the observance, Memorial Day, quotes an anonymous journalist:
If they had merely pinned together with bayonets the two divided sections of the country, they had fought and bled and fallen in vain. Northern hatred for the South, Southern hatred for the North, is disloyalty, is treason in deed to the Union which they re-established. A few political “leaders” – “leaders” who are far in the rear of public sentiment – have sought to make political capital out of the fact that Southerners cherish the memory of the heroes who fought on their side, and have raised statues to commemorate them. But we who remember with pride the achievements of our soldiers are proud to acknowledge that they had foemen worthy of their steel, and that a common country gave birth to both.
This attitude allowed for such excitements as the 1913 Gettysburg reunion, which featured elderly Confederates falling into the arms of their Union counterparts. Schauffler saw this spirit as “vindication” of what he called “America’s inherent nobility”. Regardless of whether that was or is true, it was definitely an achievement.
It is in that spirit that the GAR’s descendant, The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, after recalling their fathers’ joint reunions, declared in August 2017 that they “strongly condemn the removal, defacement or destruction of any Civil War Veterans Monument or tablet, whether Union or Confederate” and “support the flying of all US and CSA flags at our National Battlefield sites and to be honoured publicly in museums as our authentic archival documentation of our National past.”
The year following that reunion saw the beginning of the First World War, and America’s entrance into it three years later. When that war ended, it was perhaps inevitable that the Americans who fell in it should also be honoured on Memorial Day; the poppy symbol was picked up early on from our British allies and was incorporated by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion into their Memorial Day observances.
Indeed, with the poppy, the two minutes’ silence, the Last Post placed at cenotaphs and memorials around their Empire, the British and their dominions and colonies created a wealth of Remembrance Day observances, as did the French with their blue cornflowers, and the Germans with their forget-me-nots. Similarly, the cultus of the Unknown Soldier became well-nigh universal in the capitals of the belligerents.
That none of this made any theological sense in Protestant nations was naturally and rightfully ignored, just as it had been when the Prussians began observing the Totensonntag in honour of those who died fighting Napoleon.
In any case, amid the national iconoclasm and erosion of the ties that once bound America together, Memorial Day remains – at least for the moment (until the intelligentsia figure out its Southern origins) – a strong reminder of the country in which I was born. It was far from perfect, but it was better than what has replaced it.
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles and Vienna