How did Memorial Day develop?
Memorial Day is a US holiday honoring those who served the country in its armed conflicts. Its origins are in the years after the Civil War, but for decades it was not a US holiday. Its meaning has also shifted and has become the unofficial start to summer in the United States.
Origins of Memorial Day
In the first few years after the Civil War in the 1860s, the sheer number of dead during the conflict was still a difficult experience for many American families. The war had led to many people taking the team, during spring as flowers blossomed, to lay small floral commemorations on their fallen loved ones. The practice of laying flowers on graves had originated is a very ancient tradition and, by May, all across the United States flowers were ever present. This began to make May an type of unofficial commemoration of the dead in times of war, particularly the Civil War. Most likely, not one single community started the practice of celebrating their loved ones in the spring, but it was likely widespread.
A key turning point in making the end of May, and eventually the last Monday of May, the official holiday was General James Garfield, a prominent Civil War general and later US president who was assassinated in office, to declare May 30th as a day to decorate the graves of loved ones with flowers. He did this in 1868, by which time many had already been decorating graves of fallen loved ones during the month of May. General Garfield made the first semi-official speech in 1868 on May 30th at Arlington Cemetery. There, over 5000 people came and who were relatives for both sides of the conflict.
While already the early celebrations of what initially became called Decoration Day were celebrated by many Northern states, the tradition did not catch on as prominently in the South. In fact, Southern states often had similar celebrations but they held them on different days. In the North, individual states adopted May 30th as official state holidays, but at a federal level it was not recognized. Perhaps this was due to lingering bitterness between the North and South, where states in the South preferred to have their own Decoration day.The bitter years of Reconstruction and white bitterness towards freed slaves did not help, and animosity such as derision of so-called Carpetbaggers from the North moving to the South reflected the years after the Civil War, reflected a socially divided country. Decoration day, nevertheless, developed as a specific holiday devoted to the lost in the Civil War rather than other conflicts, as that war was by far the bloodiest in the United States' history at that point.
What began to change the meaning, somewhat, of what was then called Decoration Day were the events of World War I. Once again, a bloody conflict consumed the United States. While World War I was not a very long war for the United States, it did endure relatively heavy casualties in the tumultuous last year of the conflict. Many families endured great loss, with over 116 thousand deaths, although many of those were due to disease, including the pandemic flu that had struck during the war.The large number of dead in a short period, where soldiers were from throughout the United States, in a way did help the country come together after the the Civil War had led to bitterness. People began to celebrate not just those who died in the Civil War but also World War I and other conflicts, including more minor ones such as the Spanish-American War, began to be remembered where loved ones had died. Decoration Day on May 30th soon began to be celebrated across the United States and not just the North.