What are the origins of Memorial Day?

| Jerry Costello, For The Christophers | May 23, 2013 | 0 Comments

Are you having a parade in your town this Memorial Day? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. Most towns do.

But the origins of Memorial Day? That’s another matter entirely. Where did Memorial Day come from? Who thought of it first? Those questions have more than one answer, and the correct response, more than anything else, seems to be a matter of geography.

One thing appears to be clear. Memorial Day emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, when casualties from both North and South reached epic proportions. People everywhere “wanted to do something,” and seemingly from every corner of the growing nation sprang the idea of honoring those who had fallen in battle. Most often that took the form of visiting cemeteries that were home to the war’s victims, and strewing the graves — “decorating” them — with flowers. (Older Americans are likely to remember when the holiday was referred to as Decoration Day.)

One community with an apparent lock on the title of “first” is Waterloo, N.Y., where the observance of Memorial Day dates back to the years immediately following the Civil War. There’s even a congressional resolution saluting Waterloo as “the birthplace of Memorial Day,” echoing a proclamation by New York’s governor at the time, Nelson Rockefeller, and signed in a centennial observance in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson.

Other claims

Congressional resolution or not, other claimants to the title were not to be deterred. There’s Boalsburg, Pa.; Carbondale, Ill.; Petersburg, Va. — the list goes on, numbering two dozen or so. The towns include Columbus, Miss., and Columbus, Ga., both of which lay serious claim to the honor.

A resident of the Georgia town, Mary Ann Williams, wrote a widely published letter in 1866 suggesting a national day of observance honoring the dead, in which residents would decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. But at roughly the same time, also in 1866, four women met in the Mississippi community named Columbus and proposed a day of remembrance honoring both Union and Confederate troops. That proposal caught the imagination of Francis Finch in Ithaca, N.Y., whose poem, “The Blue and the Gray,” was written as a response and was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1867.

Wherever the honor lies, the idea caught on. Clearly the suggestion was a popular one. In time, of course, those who died in subsequent wars were added to the list of men — and, more and more, women — who fell in battle and were paid tribute on this holiday.

And so Memorial Day goes on, its exact origin of less and less importance and the memories it inspires meaning more all the time. That’s something to keep in mind in the midst of the parades and picnics, the speeches you’re likely to hear. A lot of your fellow Americans gave their lives so that all of them can take place. Remember them this day.


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Category: Memorial Day