After the guns fall silent and the parades pass by, how should a family, friends and a community continue to remember those who give their lives for their country? While politicians and scholars debate the impact of particular wars, those closest to those men and women who perished in war are left with the bitter tears and broken hearts. As a way to honor the fallen and grieve their loss, Memorial Day was established as a day for that purpose. The modern observance has its roots in the Civil War.
It had been a tradition for many years in many areas up to the 1860s, but especially in the rural South, for cemetery associations, churches and families to take a day in spring to clean the wild growth of weeds at the graves of loved ones as well as plant flowers or decorate the graves in some way. As much as it was an act of remembrance and respect for those who had passed on, it was also a time for communities and families to come together.
There had already been special observances at cemeteries for the Civil War fallen while the war still raged on. After the Civil War had ended in 1865, the nation mourned the loss of nearly 700,000 lives. Brother had fought against brother; cousin had fought against cousin. Shortages of food and medicine and disruptions of the few basic services that existed added to the civilian deaths across the South. In those moments, the political and ideological divisions that had separated North and South for so long fell away, and bitter foes and separated families were reunited in grief.
Some southerners were setting aside days to honor the Confederacy’s fallen. Starting in 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association in Georgia began marking April 26 as a day of remembrance, marking the anniversary of the surrender of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston as Memorial Day, an observance that soon spread. After 1868, southern states began making Confederate Memorial Day into state holidays.
However, some organizations, such as the Grand Army of the Republic, a society of Union war veterans, helped establish and spread the tradition of Decoration Day in Arkansas. The organization was founded shortly after the Civil War. In 1868, Union Gen. John A. Logan, now head of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for Decoration Day to take place on May 30 of that year to honor the deceased of both sides. Why the particular day was chosen has been a matter of speculation by historians for some time. Some theorize that it was chosen to avoid marking the anniversary of any particular battle or major event in the war while others believed it was for more practical purposes given the later arrival of spring in the North.
The organization faltered in the South in the 1870s and was reorganized across the region in the 1880s, with dozens of chapters in Texas. Decoration Day activities were just one activity but became an important tradition. Annual Decoration Day activities included work at cemeteries for both northern and southern dead and educating children about the importance of the day.
As early as the 1880s, Decoration Day began to be called Memorial Day, and this only became more common in the early 1900s. After World War I, the scope of Decoration Day began to change. More than 117,000 American soldiers died in just a few months of fighting in Europe in 1917 through 1918. Though Armistice Day on November 11 (which became Veterans Day in 1954) came to honor the service of the soldiers of World War I, the tradition of honoring those who died in wartime continued. Now more than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, and with those survivors and their widows passing on, their children and grandchildren continued to honor the memories of the Civil War and added those who died in their generation’s great conflict. Though it was recognized by many states as a holiday and had expanded into an honored tradition in many communities, it was not a holiday observed at the same time nationwide. Gradually, it expanded to include all those men and women who died in all wars.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson singed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act into law, which created the three-day Memorial Day weekend, moving it from the May 30 date that so many states already observed. Since 1971, as part of that act, Memorial Day has been observed on the last Monday in May as an official federal holiday.
In 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs manages 135 national cemeteries, including eight in Texas. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in American wars since the nation’s founding, and Memorial Day is but one moment to stop and reflect on what they died for. Though these men and women were but ordinary people with their own lives and dreams for the future, they died so that others may have theirs.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org