Memorial Day Through the Years
14 artifacts in this set
"Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored) near Beaufort, South Carolina," 1861-1865
In May 1865, freed slaves in Charleston organized an event to honor Union soldiers who had died while held prisoner by Confederate forces, the first such commemoration. 10,000 people--mostly African American men, women, and children--attended the event, which included speeches, sermons, parades, and military demonstrations by Union white and Black troops--including, possibly, the First South Carolina Regiment, who were stationed in the area
In 1868, General John A. Logan, a former Union general and then Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, or G.A.R. (the fraternal organization dedicated to Union Civil War veterans), called for a national celebration of "Decoration Day" to honor Civil War dead. Smaller, more localized commemorations had previously been held throughout both the North and South, but an annual national commemoration became a chief goal of the G.A.R.
This poem, written by J. Wesley Benedict, was read at a Memorial Day gathering in Port Huron, Michigan, in 1894. Benedict expressed gratitude for the sacrifices made by those who had fought the Civil War. The first nine stanzas, written in 1872, reflect the hardship of war and cost of freedom. The remaining four stanzas, added twenty years later, focus on reconciliation.
Program, "Memorial Day Exercises by the Alpheus Clark Post 118 of the Grand Army of the Republic," May 29, 1897
This 1897 pamphlet details the schedule of events for a Memorial Day service organized by an Illinois post of the G.A.R. (an organization for Union Civil War veterans). A procession of veterans would travel from the Grand Army Hall to the cemetery, where they would lay decorations upon the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers. At the graveside, there would be music, prayer, and a formal reading of the names.
Garland Their Graves: A Decoration Day and Memorial Service Song Book, for the G.A.R. and Kindred Orders, 1900
This songbook--produced for Civil War veterans' groups like the G.A.R.--refers to both "Memorial Day" and "Decoration Day." The two names for the holiday were used interchangeably in some regions, with "Decoration Day"--a name that stemmed from the tradition of decorating gravesites--initially being more common, particularly in the South.
Unlike Veterans Day, which honors all who previously served in the United States Armed Forces, and Armed Forces Day, which unofficially honors those currently in the service, Memorial Day is dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives while serving in America's armed forces. This 1908 postcard reflects that emphasis.
From the first commemoration in 1865 until today, the laying of flowers has become a Memorial Day tradition. Wreaths, bouquets, and grave blankets can often be found laid on the gravesites of fallen soldiers, or placed at local and national military memorials.
By 1890, each Northern state had made Memorial Day an official state holiday. Many Southern states continued to honor their Confederate dead on a separate date until after World War I. Yet the language of this 1909 postcard--with its use of "E Pluribus Unum," and reference to "loyalty to this Land"--reflects an increasing sense of American unity. Wartime animosity between North and South had softened over time.
Memorial Day commemorations often involved gravesite visits and services. There, a clergyman would often offer a short sermon, prayer, or elegy. Patriotic hymns would be sung, and the graves themselves would be decorated with flowers. Although graveside services are less common today, many people still decorate the graves of deceased servicemen in their local cemeteries, or take flowers to local memorials.
This photographic postcard shows a church in White Bluffs, Washington, decorated with flags and patriotic bunting for the Memorial Day holiday.
This photo shows people in Greenville, Maine, gathering for a Memorial Day commemoration in the local cemetery. In the wake of World War I, Memorial Day evolved to include all soldiers who had fallen in service of the country, not just those from the Civil War.
This image of a Memorial Day parade in Canton, New York, is particularly notable, as it was taken while the United States was in the midst of World War II. In this instance, the commemoration would have not only have been for those lost in previous wars, but also for those who had already died in the ongoing one.
By the end of the twentieth century, public perception of the holiday had somewhat shifted. Although it remains a day of commemoration, Memorial Day has now come to unofficially mark the start of the summer season--a long weekend marked with barbecues, parties, and parades.
Memorial Day was originally celebrated on May 30. In 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect, the date was set as the last Monday in May, and Memorial Day was declared the official name. Many--including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the late Senator Daniel Inouye--have advocated for a return to the May 30 date, to shift the focus away from having a long weekend of fun, and back to honoring those who died for their country.