Civil War

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

History, memory, and spontaneous order



Memorial Day used to be called Decoration Day, after the custom of decorating graves with flowers. It emerged after the Civil War, and emerged really is the right word for it: There is no clear-cut candidate for the "first" Decoration Day. Different towns held different commemorations, and out of those ceremonies there rose a holiday. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan may have proclaimed Decoration Day as an annual national event in 1868, but he certainly didn't start the practice.

Naturally, there are legends about where the tradition began. One takes place in Columbus, Mississippi—an appropriate name for a town with a disputed claim to getting someplace first. In 1866, it is said, four Columbus women went to the cemetary to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers; when they saw the barren spots where the Union men were buried, they decided to lay some flowers there too. A year later, this story inspired the poet Francis Miles Finch to write "The Blue and the Gray," with a closing stanza that left no doubt about his deeper agenda:


No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.

This wasn't just Finch's tribute to the dead; it was a statement about burying the past and moving forward, one nation again. It was a popular poem, and a popular story about the origins of the holiday, because it filled a popular need: a need for a narrative of reconciliation, of unity after the war.


Other stories fill other needs. The New York Times ran a nice piece by Campbell Robertson four years ago about the various towns that claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day, each with its own local folklore about how the holiday began. (Every one of these places, Robertson writes, "seems to have different criteria: whether its ceremony was in fact the earliest to honor Civil War dead, or the first one that General Logan heard about, or the first one that conceived of a national, recurring day.") Lately a lot of attention has been paid to an event in May of 1865, when thousands of freedmen in Charleston, South Carolina, sang "John Brown's Body" and various patriotic songs as they reburied the Union dead who had been found in a war prison. This account of "the first Memorial Day" obviously has a different political tenor than one that spotlights the tale from Columbus; it puts the stress on liberation, not reconciliation. It is anyone's guess whether Logan had heard either story when he declared Decoration Day a few years later, leaving space for each tale to be told.

Well, that's how historical memory works: We constantly reframe the past to fit the needs of the present. But behind all the stories you'll find a core truth about any devastating war. Among different people in different places, the bloodshed may inspire emotions of many kinds, from gratitude to regret; but everywhere, there will be reasons to grieve. Whether they lived in Waterloo, New York, or Knoxville, Tennessee, Americans who survived the Civil War decorated the graves of Americans who did not. It was that spontaneous surge of mourning that gave us Decoration Day. Logan's order merely formalized something that had been building up from below.

NEXT: What Teachers Don't Want You to Learn

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  1. I see a Rebel Flag!!!!


    1. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.

  2. When they fought slavery 150 years ago, they were fighting for the freedom of everyone. And they were fighting for the rights upon which this country was founded. Millions of brave Americans fought and died for our freedom. Their sacrifice was not in vain. Happy Memorial Day to all. 🙂

    1. 150 years ago the Civil War was over, Shreektard. Boink derp bloop!

      1. It’s a sad day for warmongers, bomb droppers and oil industry shillmen. Sorry. 🙁

        1. It’s sad day for math, Shreeky.

          1. Are you autistic? It’s ok if you are, just wondering.

            1. You think he’s autistic because he knows how to do basic math better than you?

              1. I love the ‘woe is me’ spiel of the new shreek sock puppet. Why is everyone so mean to me? It can’t be because I’ve been a mendacious dick to everyone here for years, boohoohoo.

    2. You can’t even get basic facts right. Millions fought, surely, but estimates for dead are around 650K to 800K.

      And as for their sacrifice: first off, slavery was in decline and would have died out within a generation or two anyway, with much less residual strife (100 years of government-mandated Jim Crow) and without those 650K-800K dead. Secondly, the civil war began the transition to a federal behemoth, including the boondoggle of the transcontinental railroad (which would have been built anyway) and the currency regulations which lead to ever more confusing and inept regulation, culminating in the Fed.

      Much as I despise slavery and don’t see how it could possibly be considered compatible with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the very concept of freedom, when you try to balance 100 years of Jim Crow + 650K-800K dead against several million slaves kept in bondage for another generation or two, I think the Jim Crow aspect alone weighs against the Civil War being a good war. They should have let the southern states secede and sink, for that is surely what they would have done with a slavery economy.

      1. Not to mention the fact that the ‘greatest president in history’, Lincoln, didn’t fight the war to free slaves, but to keep the south from seceding.

        1. Although we’ll never know, I suspect that Lincoln, had he not been killed, would have beat FDR to the punch as far as breaking the tradition of voluntarily stepping down after two terms.

          1. Everything I’ve read ndicztes that he was sick and weary.

            1. Did he also ponder over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore?

      2. I’m not going to wade into slavery vs civil war, but I will point out that Jim Crow was unnecessary. The Republicans basically just gave up after several years making real strides during Reconstruction.
        From the Wiki:
        “The deployment of the U.S. Army was central to the survival of Republican state governments; they collapsed when the Army was removed in 1877 as part of a Congressional bargain to elect Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president. ”
        As soon as the army was no longer occupying the old Confederacy, they went right back to using black people as slaves through bullshit like chain gangs and crop sharing.
        Read about how great black communities were doing in places like New Orleans before the North got tired of occupying the South.
        Jim Crow was far from inevitable.

      3. If the South had been permitted to secede slavery could not have lasted ten years. The North would have become a safe home for runaway slaves. In addition, the economic backwardness of the South, due to its feudal structure, would have regressed to subsistence farming. Commerce was “beneath the dignity” of Southern gentlemen so no businesses would have been started to take up the slack when cotton farming collapsed. Tradesmen and artisans would have had to migrate northward in order to find work. The “Southern Way of Life” was doomed.

        1. The North would have become a safe home for runaway slaves.

          Likely prompting border skirmishes and leading to war anyway. That war may have been better or may have been worse, and the CSA may have been smaller if war did not appear imminent in 1861, but some kind of war over slavery was likely inevitable.

        2. The South would have prospered from all the Jewish capital and business fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in the North.

  3. Confederate Memorial Day is first because our flowers bloom earlier.

    1. Racist!

    2. Flower inequality!

    3. Technically, skunk cabbage blooms first, in February.

      1. What kind of dressing is best with that?

        1. Gas mask.

  4. Charles Cooke has a decent piece on Memorial Day:…

    1. All the other days of the year, his writing’s lousy.

  5. So, the new Roots thing is on the History channel tonight. Wonder if it will be worth watching or a complete fail?

    1. I’m not planning on watching it. I saw the first one. I know the story. If it was a 2 hour thing or if it was a continuation as opposed to a retelling I probably would have.

      1. Yeah, I remember watching the first one. I watched it at my Aunt’s house with their family, it was a big deal. I really enjoyed it. It sounds like the author pretty much made the entire thing up, but it was a good historical novel.

      1. Roots 2016

        I’m going to tune it at least for a little while because I really like the original. I watched the series at least 5 times and read the book.

          1. Oh hey. Thanks for not reluctantly (and after careful deliberation) droning me today. Is that in honor of Memorial Day?

            1. It’s in honor of ignoring you, shreek.

              1. Oh hey. Thanks for not saying “Euthanize Yourself” or standing by silently when others say that. Is that in honor of Memorial Day?

                1. Thanks for not saying “Euthanize Yourself” or standing by silently when others say that.

                  Go suck on a bag of dicks.


                  1. Wait, do you mean he should suck on the bag or take each dick out of the bag and individually suck on them?

          1. Thanks for the link. Does look interesting.

            1. What I found most interesting were some of the complex relationships between masters and slaves. One story struck me where a female slave said multiple times that she loved the woman of the house while at the same time resented being her slave. Once free when the woman had requested to spend time with her, she told her no because she no longer had to do as the woman told her. Of course most of the relationships were not that amicable. Very sad but very interesting.

              1. Last time I visited Monticello, one of the more talked about things on the tour was the well known relationship between Jefferson and one of his house servants. I think it could be said, they were a couple, even though that was not socially acceptable in those days.

                1. There is some doubt about that. Jefferson had a brother who was quite the ladies’ man, and Sally Hemmings’ kid might have been his.

                  1. I haven’t heard that one.

                2. And, uh, wasn’t he married?

                  1. His wife died.

                    1. Ah, well that would make having a mistress slightly less… socially frowned upon?… I guess.

                    2. On her deathbed, she made him promise never to marry again.

    2. So far, 21st century American entertainment has been failing massively at (a) remakes and (b) covering race. The only exception to both rules was 12 Years a Slave.

      So the odds for the new Roots probably aren’t that good.

      1. Yeah, I’m not expecting more. I’m going to start watching and if it turns out to be one big PC clusterfuck full of leftist bullshit, instead of a good watch like the first one, I’ll just turn it off.

        1. How could it not be “one big PC clusterfuck full of leftist bullshit”?

          1. Well, I mean theoretically it could not be. I expect it and then I’m pleasantly surprised when it’s not.

      2. So far, 21st century American entertainment has been failing massively at (a) remakes

        No, the Evil Dead remake is so good it singlehandedly justifies the trend. It even makes up for unnecessary stuff like the Total Recall remake.

        1. I stand corrected.

          So…Evil Dead and 12 Years a Slave. You want to humiliate me by citing any *other* good recent remakes?

          1. Mad Max. True Grit. Dredd (not a tall order, to be fair). The Man from UNCLE wasn’t awful. Does the Fargo TV show count?

            Ocean’s 11 is also 21st century, but that might be a bit of a cheat.

            1. I obviously haven’t been watching the right movies.

            2. Mad Max wasn’t really a remake. Great flick though. I’ve enjoyed the Fargo series so far

            3. I’ll second the Fargo TV show. It’s been too long since I saw the movie to remember details, but the cadence, lingo, style, everything is like a flashback, like the first time I went back on my old Navy ship and smelled the smell — I think I was transported back in time for a second or two. And Billy Bob Thornton is at his best.

            4. I’m a little late to this party but Dredd was absolutely excellent. A personal favorite.

            5. The Mad Max remake is amaze ballz.

          2. The Departed is a remake of an Asian movie, and it won Best Picture.

            Friday the 13th (2009) is somewhere between a reboot, and a remake incorporating ideas from the first few movies in that franchise. So I’m including it.

            Nicolas Cage’s The Wicker Man is one of the best (probably unintentional) comedies of recent years.

            No need to feel “humiliated” though. 🙂

            1. “Nicolas Cage’s The Wicker Man is one of the best (probably unintentional) comedies of recent years.”

              I remember busting out laughing at the absurdity of that movie. If that was intentional on their part then I got trolled big time.

    3. I’m going to watch Person of Interest.I mowed for 4 hours.Now I’ m drinking beer and will have soft tacos and Mexican style rice later.I’m getting a good tan,I love climate change [note to self,buy more beer for tonight]

      1. I miss mowing now. I was mowing 6 acres for around 10 years before I moved to the city. It was a huge relief at first, I would spend all day Saturday or Sunday just mowing and trimming. Now I miss it again. This time I want a slightly smaller lawn.

        1. Now I miss it again.

          You’re a sick puppy. The only job more futile than mowing is making the bed.

          1. Yeah, I could never miss mowing.

          2. I still can’t fold a fitted sheet, ):

            1. Stick to hospital corners then.

              1. No, my wife is amazing at that and everything else concerning your typical oppressed by the patriarchy house wife. I’m gonna just let her do it. It’s maybe the only domestic chore I cannot do, being as I’ve lived as a bachelor, so I can’t learn it, else all my privilege is gone.

  6. My Buddy’s Mother Makes $96/hr on the laptop. She has been out of work for six months but last month her paycheck was $15480 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
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    1. It’s nice to know Winston’s mom is working again.

      1. Last night, I had to do all the work when Winston’s mum was over.

        1. I wore her out

  7. The problem with post-Civil War “reconciliation” was that it had a bit of sting in the tail. The ex-Confederates reconciled themselves to losing the war – big of them to recognize this – and the ex-Union people got so many sentimental tears in their eyes they had trouble seeing the mistreatment of black southerners and white Republicans.

    It became a culture-war issue – anyone in the North who brought up the Late Unpleasantness was Waving the Bloody Shirt, and the Liberal Republicans (yes, that was what they were called) thought the Grand administration was using the human-rights abuses committed by ex-Confederates as a distraction from the *real* issues of government corruption, etc.

    Seems strangely familiar…

  8. Americans who died fighting ISIS:

    1. Keith Broomfield, volunteer with the Kurdish Lions of Rojava Brigade- killed June 3rd 2015 in northern Syria.
    When asked why he joined, he said: “I’m here to be a part of the movement, do whatever I can to assist that. With everything that’s going on, it seems like the right thing to do.”

    2. Msgt Joshua Wheeler, US Army Delta Force- killed October 22nd 2015 in a raid in northern Iraq which saved 70 hostages from execution.

    3. Ssgt Louis Cardin, USMC- killed during a rocket attack on March 19th 2016 in Makhmur, Iraq.

    4. Charles Keating IV, Navy SEAL- killed May 3rd near Telskof, Iraq while repelling an ISIS attack.

  9. It would a great story to hear of the country so divided seeking reconciliation.

    Stark contrast to today when a nation of people with so much in common drives itself firmly towards division.

    1. Thanks, Obama.

    2. Don’t worry, JWW. That’s nothing that can’t be solved by bringing in more Muslims and Latin American peasants.

    3. The Starks shall rise again!

  10. Bill Kauffman describes the first time a libertarian Presidential candidate got 1%.

    1. First? You mean “only”

  11. The left won the culture war. Will they be merciful?

    Mehmet the Conquerer just took Byzantium by storm. Will he show restraint?

    1. Incidentally, since the defeated side includes not only evangelicals, but anyone who dares to defend their rights, it applies to some of y’all, too.

    2. The left won the culture war (as actual liberals in disguise) and then decided to go batshit crazy.

      1. Given that being crazy has actually turned out to be a successful strategy (eg, “transgender rights”), then maybe *they’re* the sane ones.

        If the inmates run the asylum, can you really call them inmates any more?

        1. I call them idiots. See you in the gulags.

    3. Why would they be merciful, mercy and forgiveness are deplorable “Christian” values.

  12. More wonderful news for libertarians, from a guy who took his teenage daughter to see the “Hamilton” musical:

    “All of Elizabeth’s friends seem to be into Hamilton. One of them will periodically and for no obvious reason break into “You’ll Be Back,” a song where King George tells the colonies they will eventually return to England’s rule (”Cuz when push comes to shove/I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”). Another somehow got to see the show back before it became a national phenomenon and this has turned her into something of a superhero.

    “But of course, Elizabeth is more consumed by the show than most. She has memorized every word of the musical, read every word she can about Alexander Hamilton, and, naturally, she has asked us to start calling her “Eliza” after Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler. She wears one of her three Hamilton T-shirts every single day that she’s allowed, and she regularly says things like “Thomas Jefferson was the worst,” though it has nothing at all to do with what we were talking about, and she will actually tear up a little thinking about poor John Laurens.”

  13. A quote about the outlaws faction from the upcoming video game Elex:

    A rocky, desert wasteland, Tavar is home to the Outlaws. Scavenging the ruins for weapons and equipment, the Outlaws will worship no god, they will not pledge themselves to the strict laws of the Berserkers, or surrender to a life of emotionless conflict. With the meteor came a chance for freedom, choice, a world where anyone can rise to the top. The Outlaws live by the motto, that life may be brutal, but it’s free and easy, and that all shall be rewarded for their strengths

  14. Transgender Oberlin student outraged at being asked to use the “wrong” bathroom…

    No, wait, I meant to say “An editor at the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh was hacked to death by suspected Islamist militants on Monday in the capital city of Dhaka.”

    Pretty much the same thing, really.

    1. The murderers are just misunderstood, they’re on the same side as us ultra tolerant liberals, they just need more love.

  15. Start working at home with Google! It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Wednesday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this – 4 weeks past. I began this 8-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $77 per hour. I work through this link, go to tech tab for work detail.

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