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.