Memorial Day, Years Ago

How did Memorial Day get its start?'s Gary Paul Gates provides the answer along with a personal reflection.
When I was a young lad growing up in the rustic lake country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I was very close to my Great Aunt Libby, and I especially enjoyed spending time with her when she was in a nostalgic mood and eager to reminisce about her childhood years.

Her father - my great-grandfather - had fought in the Civil War and, indeed, had almost been killed on the field of battle. As it was, the severe head wound he sustained left him blind for the rest of his life.

In spite of that affliction, when he came home from the war he proceeded to sire eight children, the last of whom was Aunt Libby who, by the time I came to know her, was a regal, white-haired lady in her mid-'70s. (One of her older sisters was my grandmother, who had died before I was born.) I'm providing all this context as a kind of introduction to a favorite story my great aunt always liked to relate at this time of year.

One of her most enduring childhood memories was of Memorial Day - or Decoration Day, as she usually called it. On that day, year in and year out, her father and other members of the family would put on their mourning clothes and journey by horse and buggy to the only Union cemetery in that remote part of the Midwest.

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There they would assemble with other veterans from her father's old Civil War unit (who invariably were accompanied by their families) and lay wreaths and other tokens of respect at the gravesites of their fallen comrades-in-arms.

The first time Aunt Libby took part in that somber ritual she was a very young girl - no more than 7 or 8 years old - and it was her first experience at seeing grown men weep. In particular, seeing tears stream down from her father's sightless eyes made such a searing impression on her that nearly 70 years later, she still spoke of it with strong, palpable emotion. (And, needless to say, her vivid recollection of that scene made a lasting impression on me.)

But the larger point to be made here is that this was how Memorial Day was observed in scores of American communities during the waning decades of the 19th century whn the Civil War was still a recent and tragic memory.

As a matter of fact, the holiday came into existence just three years after the Civil War ended. On May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11, officially proclaiming May 30 "Decoration Day" to mourn the loss of loved ones who had died in that bitter conflict.

For years the states of the former Confederacy refused to acknowledge the Northern holiday, preferring instead to honor their dead on other dates. But in the early years of the 20th century, it became a truly national day of observance and gradually, as time passed, it came to be known by another name - Memorial Day.

But as we moved through the 20th century, most Americans inevitably lost sight of the holiday's original purpose. As time went on, the three-day weekend in May came to mean little more than the start of another summer season, a time for picnics and ball games and, if the weather was balmy enough, a leisurely day at the beach.

There is no great reason to lament this development. After all, the Civil War has long since receded into the distant past. Too many generations have come and gone in the 135 years since that bloody struggle tore the country apart.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to take a moment or two this weekend to reflect on what this fun-and-games holiday once meant to some of our forebears. Which is why at this time of year I make a conscious effort to recall my Great Aunt Libby and the memories she passed on from a childhood when the Civil War was as real and poignant as her father's blindness and the scenes of grief she observed at the gravesites of his slain comrades.

Written by Gary Paul Gates