The Secret History of Memorial Day

Adam Krause made a collage about the Civil War in American memory

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside to remember the many who have died serving in the U.S. Military’s many wars.

And in a way, the rituals and practices of Memorial Day in its first decades of existence contributed to the appalling state of race relations in the United States, where a greater portion of the black population is currently imprisoned than in South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

The holiday arose in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, and its development helped create the collective memory of that war. Following the Civil War, there was a definite need to contextualize and understand what had just happened. 620,000 soldiers had died on both sides. Large swaths of the American South lay in ruins. Half the nation had just tried and failed to secede. All the slaves were freed. What did it all mean?

The first Memorial Day, then called Decoration Day, was celebrated in May 1865, less than a month after the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Court House. Although it was observed under different names on different days for years, New York State made it an official holiday in 1873, and by 1890, so had the rest of the nation.

The yearly parades, speeches, and ceremonies of Memorial Day helped create the collective memory of the Civil War. And as time went on, slavery and emancipation were pushed to the periphery, while a strange narrative of white reunification based on shared sacrifice moved to the forefront. In trying to bring immediate peace to the recently warring white population, the rights of the freshly freed slaves were forgotten. The North may have won the war, but the South eventually won the peace. Amnesty was offered to all but the very top of the Southern leadership, permitting most of the pre-war ruling class to maintain power. Southern blacks just went from slaves to landless serfs, still beholden to the same basic power structure as before.

There were initially many competing narratives for the Civil War, but in the end, a story of shared white sacrifice followed by forgiveness won out. At a Memorial Day event in Columbus, Mississippi, when women decorated the graves of Northern and Southern soldiers with equal reverence, they inspired Francis Miles Finch’s enormously popular 1867 poem “The Blue and the Gray.” The final stanza states:

No more shall the war-cry sever,
   Or the winding rivers be red:
They banish our anger forever
   When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
   Waiting the Judgment Day:
Love and tears for the Blue;
   Tears and love for the Gray. (1)

And on Memorial Day in 1869, Colonel S.S. Fisher shared a similar sentiment in a speech delivered in Washington D.C.

Over brothers’ graves, let brothers’ quarrels die.
Let there be peace between us; nay more, let there be love between us,
that these swords, that we have learned so well to use,
may, if ever used again, strike only at a common foe.

On that same day in Marietta, Georgia, the Reverend James W. Lee declared that “They are not our enemies now.” (2)

This rhetoric of reconciliation grew as the decades ensued, so that by 1913, then-President Woodrow Wilson could state that the decades since the Civil War had meant

peace and union and vigor, and the maturity and might of a great nation. How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other's eyes. (3)

So the war was over and enemies were friends. White America was reunified. Why had they even fought? It seems they had forgotten. Meanwhile, freed slaves worked for almost nothing instead of just nothing, attended segregated schools, hid from the KKK, and risked being lynched just by being. And even 150 years after the supposed political equality of the races was established, “driving while black” won’t just get you pulled over. It just might get you shot. The narratives constructed, in part, at Memorial Day events throughout the United States helped produce this situation. White America reconciled at the expense of Black America’s actual equality.

So to the citizens of the United States I say, have a happy Memorial Day. Enjoy the day off. Maybe go to a picnic. But one of these years, sometime soon, please fulfill the promise of equality we made back in the 1860s. This is getting embarrassing.



2. E. F. M. Faehtz, ed. Memorial Day: A Record of Ceremonies Over the Graves of the Union Soldiers, May 29 and 30, 1869. (Washington D.C.: Headquarters Grand Army of the Republic, 1870). pp. 21, 103.