"Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude - the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."
- Gen. John A. Logan, commander in chief, Grand Army of the Republic, May 5, 1868
TOMORROW, the United States commemorates its first Memorial Day since Sept. 11. For the first time in a generation, the day set aside to remember dead soldiers occurs in a country that is, according to many, including its president, at war.
To most, that war is abstrusely abstract, fought by a handful of citizen-soldiers and undependable surrogates. Our memorials have focused on the civilian victims - and their martyred rescuers.
Such was not the case when General Logan wrote those words, part of an order calling for the first Memorial Day on May 30, 1868. Logan's Grand Army of the Republic was the preeminent organization of Union veterans of the war.
Though the United States was at peace in 1868, war was far from abstract. Some 620,000 people had just died fighting - a figure that almost equals the dead from all of America's other wars combined. About 116,000 Americans died in World War I and more than 400,000 in World War II. They were citizens of a much larger country. The Civil War dead represented about 2 percent of the country's population. A war with an equivalent death rate today would kill nearly 6 million Americans.
"Those [Civil War] dead are still a small number compared to the wounded, compared to those who served in uniform, compared to the family members of all those soldiers," says Michael Johnson, a history professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "An enormous proportion of the population was directly involved."
Virtually every town in the newly reunited republic had felt the fighting's ghastly effects. Those dead who were not in battlefield graves were in myriad local cemeteries. They were not just soldiers, but sons and husbands, cousins and nephews, neighbors and friends. The response to Logan's order was tremendous.
"One of the things the Civil War did was give men who served an immense education in the meaning of organization," says Johnson. "They knew how to put together something like this."
Originally, the date was known as Decoration Day, a descriptive title since its purpose was to decorate soldiers' graves with flowers. As David W. Blight of Amherst College points out, the end of May was chosen because flowers are plentiful at that time of year.
"That first year nearly 200 cities and towns held parades to the cemetery," says Blight. "By 1869, nearly 350 towns had celebrations. You could not have grown up during the 1880s or '90s anywhere near a town and not experienced this."
Streams of people would journey to cemeteries, listen to speeches and distribute floral tributes. The picnics that now mark this spring holiday had their origin in the meals families took to the battlefields and rural graveyards. In his 2001 book Race and Reunion, Blight writes that war orphans often led early processions, "as in Baltimore where some 50 children from the Union Orphan Asylum, led by their matrons, dropped flowers on their fathers' graves," probably those in Loudon Park Cemetery where Union and Confederate dead are buried.
"It became to some people an American All Saints Day," Blight says.
It became a holiday
Within a generation, it also became a holiday, with baseball tournaments and bicycle races and the like. The name also began to change as the day became more about memory than a direct connection with those buried. Though its origins still appear in the flags that sprout in national cemeteries and the wreaths laid on monuments, Decoration Day became Memorial Day. It found new importance after each of the country's wars, regaining its personal connection to many after the deaths of the World Wars. In 1971, its date was changed from May 30 to the last Monday of the month.
Blight contends that in the holiday's first few decades, it became a day devoted to shaping our memory of the Civil War. That is evident in the battle over who held the first Decoration Day. Vicksburg and Columbus, Miss.; Winchester, Va.; Carbondale, Ill.; and Boalsburg, Pa., claim that their residents, led by women, first put flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers.
In 1966, Congress officially recognized the claim of Waterloo, N.Y., as originating the celebration May 5, 1866. That ceremony is said to have inspired Francis Miles Finch to write the popular poem "The Blue and Gray," which is often credited with spurring the movement that led Logan to issue his order.