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The History and Meaning of Memorial Day, part 1

Todd DePastino

Decoration Day postcard, 1908. (National Museum of American History)

Decoration Day—now called Memorial Day—is a uniquely American holiday with shadowy origins. We know it began immediately after the Civil War when women came out all over the country to decorate the graves of fallen service men. Over two dozen towns claim title to “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” including Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Macon, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson tried to end the squabbling by declaring Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace. Nobody paid him any attention.

There was nothing like Memorial Day until the Civil War. That’s because the Civil War was the first American war with mass armies, large battles, and huge casualties. Over the course of eight years, the American Revolution, for example, saw about 25,000 killed, wounded, and dead from disease. The Battle of Gettysburg caused twice that number in three days! Perhaps as many as 750,000 Americans died in the Civil War, more than all our other wars combined. Nothing had prepared Americans for this kind of carnage.

Take the Battle of Shiloh, an early horror that raged near the town of Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, on April 6-7, 1862. That first morning, 44,000 Confederate forces led by General Albert Sidney Johnston attacked 49,000 men led by General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s men, not expecting an attack, were sleeping, eating breakfast, and drilling. No trenches, no pickets. Grant’s forces would have been annihilated if the Confederates hadn’t been equally ill-prepared. One newly arrived regiment from Louisiana arrived in uniforms matching the Union blue. Many of them would die from friendly fire (as did General Johnston himself). With luck and reinforcements, Grant was able to battle back the next day with a ferocious counterattack that re-opened the way to Mississippi and Alabama.

American Civil War battle of Shiloh, actions on the morning of April 6, 1862. (Hlj, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

But the real story of Shiloh were the casualties. The Union lost 13,000 men killed, wounded, missing. Confederate casualties were over 10,000. These numbers would amaze and horrify newspaper readers over the next several days. Neither side had an ambulance corps or medical units, so the wounded were loaded in wagons and sent down country roads that spoked in every direction from Pittsburg Landing.

Over a hundred, both Blue and Gray, rumbled 80 miles south to Columbus, Mississippi. By the time the wagon arrived, many were already dead. They were all buried together, Union and Confederate, at Friendship Cemetery. A couple weeks later, some women—the “Ladies of Columbus”–decorated the graves of Confederate dead. They would continue to do so every spring of the war.

Then, the first postbellum spring, April 25, 1866 to be exact, the Ladies of Columbus came out again to Friendship Cemetery and noticed the 40 lonely Union graves undecorated. In a small act of mercy, they placed magnolia blossoms on the enemy graves with the same loving care they gave to their own.

Ladies of Columbus, Mississippi Department of Archives and History

A group of Union occupation troops saw the gesture and notified Horace Greeley, famed editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley wrote a celebratory piece about the Ladies of Columbus and urged Americans to do likewise to foster national reconciliation. Decoration Day was born.

Two years later, our country’s first veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, ratified a practice that had already taken hold and issued General Order No. 11, directing that May 30 be the annual date “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades . . . whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.”

The Ladies of Columbus took pride of place in our understanding Decoration Day’s origins until ten years ago, when the historian David Blight changed our understanding of the holiday’s history. Blight discovered a treasure trove of documents detailing a remarkable Decoration Day commemoration a year earlier than the Columbus, Mississippi event, and with a very different purpose. That story is the subject of part two.

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