Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a federal holiday whose overt purpose is to remember the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces, but which for most people is simply a day off from work, and is far less explicitly connected to memorializing war dead than observances in other countries such as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and the like. It is true that there are local parades and wreath-laying ceremonies, but they generally take a back seat to barbecues and shopping. Memorial Day is generally seen as the start of the summer vacation season (and coincides with the end of the university year), while Labor Day marks the end.
The holiday, which is now observed every year on the last Monday of May (but was originally fixed on 30 May), originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all U.S. citizens who had died while in the military service.
Annual Decoration Days for some cemeteries are still held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in rural areas of the U.S. South, notably in the mountain areas. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors, as well as those who have died more recently, are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with relatives and others. There often is a religious service and a picnic-like “dinner on the grounds,” the traditional term for a potluck meal at a church. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect a more remote ancestor to the “memorial day” idea.
The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Hampton Park Race Course in Charleston; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The newly freed slaves cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course”. Nearly 10,000 people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children, newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, as well as mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.
David W. Blight described the day as follows:
This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. 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.
Blight did, however, remark that he had no evidence that this event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.
On May 26, 1966, President Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Earlier, the 89th Congress had adopted House Concurrent Resolution 587, which officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day began 100 years prior in Waterloo, New York. Other communities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day include Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, Carbondale, Illinois, Columbus, Georgia, and Columbus, Mississippi. A recent study investigating the Waterloo claim as well as dozens of other origination theories concludes that nearly all of them are based apocryphal legends.
Copying a practice that began in the Southern states, on May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans’ organization for Union Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for “Decoration Day” to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle, but was the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.
An annual Memorial Day custom has been in practice in the South since 1866. The U.S. National Park Service, as well as numerous scholars, attribute its beginning to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. Originally called “Memorial Day,” the Southern commemoration appended the label “Confederate” to the title when northerners co-opted the holiday in 1868. The tradition of Memorial Day observance which had emerged earlier in the South was linked to the Lost Cause and served as the prototype for the national day of memory embraced by the nation in 1868. Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in different Southern states. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause. The most important was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women by World War I. They were “strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks.”
On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead in the city’s cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the lost Confederate cause. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the practice into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”, which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.
Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date, although the significance of that date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:
Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
Starting in 1987 Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. Inouye continued introducing the resolution until his death in 2012.
I’ve attended more than my fair share of mundane Memorial Day barbecues in the past, involving indifferent hamburgers, cooked on propane grills, along with side dishes of bean or potato salads and their ilk. Southern-style dinner on the grounds holds much more appeal for me. My contributions have varied mightily over the years. Churches have ovens to keep hot dishes warm, so I have made pies and casseroles of various sorts. Once I made a Mexican-inspired dish of corn tortillas wrapped around ground beef, onions, and peppers baked in a spicy tomato sauce which everyone called “lasagna” but scarfed up anyway. In the years before I left the U.S. I tended to resort to large plates of assorted vegetable crudités, accompanied by homemade dips, which vanished in a flash as both appetizers and side dishes.
There is no great secret to the crudités beyond variety. Don’t just cut up a few carrots and celery sticks and call it quits. Mushrooms for me are a must, as well as bell peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. You’re looking for color and crunch. There’s few vegetables that cannot be eaten raw (with the exception of most roots).
The real trick is in creating an array of dips – not just one. Commercial dips don’t cut it for me. A blend of Roquefort or Stilton and mayonnaise is one of my favorites, but over the years I’ve experimented a fair bit, mostly with herbs and spices. Homemade mayonnaise is a snap. The oil is your choice. I use olive oil, but you can use safflower oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, corn oil . . . or any oil you like.
1 egg yolk
½ tsp salt
½ tsp dry mustard (optional)
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 cup oil
Combine the lemon juice and vinegar in a little bowl.
Put the egg yolk salt and mustard (if used) in a mixing bowl. To mix you can use a hand whisk, portable electric mixer or stand mixer. I use the latter usually, but I have used hand methods. The main thing is never to stop beating. With a stand mixer, I set it on medium speed and just keep it running until finished. Beat the egg mixture to a froth. Add half the lemon/vinegar mix and continue beating. Then begin adding the oil one drop at a time. Your beating must be continuous. Add about one half of the oil in this manner. You will see an emulsion starting to form. When the mix is creamy add the rest of the lemon and vinegar. Now you can add the oil a little faster in a steady stream. When all the oil is added, you are done.