Revising Memorial Day

Where did Memorial Day start? What does it mean?

Memorial Day parade in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
Memorial Day parade in Boalsburg, PA – Creative Commons (Travis Prebble)

If pressed, most of us could probably guess that it emerged from the wake of the Civil War and perhaps explain that it differs from, say, Veterans Day or Armed Forces Day in specifically remembering those who have died in military service to this country. Writing in the midst of the Vietnam War, historian Conrad Cherry called the last Monday in May

a part of an American ceremonial calendar… a sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of redemptive sacrifice is extolled and pledges to American ideals are renewed.

…The Memorial Day celebration is an American sacred ceremony, a religious ritual, a modern cult of the dead. (“Two American Sacred Ceremonies: Their Implications for the Study of Religion in America,” American Quarterly, Winter 1969, pp. 339-40)

And that, he argued, was particularly true of small towns in the Northeast. But whether the holiday was actually born in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania (the setting of half of Cherry’s article, where three townswomen first decorated war graves in May 1864) or Waterloo, New York (the officially recognized birthplace, from 1866), intellectual historian Ray Haberski argues that such an interpretation is “almost certainly wrong. Wrong not just historically, but especially in light of a landmark essay from Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrong morally.”

He follows David Blight in arguing that Memorial Day actually started in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina, where freed blacks organized a ceremony that buried not only deceased Union prisoners of war, but slavery itself. Here’s how Blight describes this first “Decoration Day” (as the holiday was originally known):

African American soldiers fighting in 1864
African American soldiers fighting in Virginia in 1864 – Library of Congress

At 9 am on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathering in the cemetery enclosure; a childrens’ choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you… in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”

Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration. The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders’ republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers’ valor and sacrifice.

Ray Haberski
Ray Haberski – Society for U.S. Intellectual History

Seeing the origin of Memorial Day in this remarkable event should challenge our understanding of its meaning. While Cherry frames Memorial Day as commemorating the sacrifices that sanctify “America’s ‘divine mission’ of preserving and dispensing freedom,” Haberski suggests we need to understand it in light of Sylvester Johnson’s contention that “The US is the product of White settler colonialism; it was created as an Anglo-American republic of White-only citizens.” Concludes Haberski:

While Johnson was not speaking specifically about Memorial Day, the point of his argument shares common ground with the founders of Memorial Day in Charleston, people who believed they were celebrating more than the end of the Civil War or the sacrifice of men in battle, but the triumph of a second American revolution.  Yet, as Johnson makes plain, the entombing of slavery did not prevent the specter of racism from haunting celebrations of the nation.  Memorial Day could recognize and memorialize the sacrifices of those who have legitimate claim to defining America but have been forgotten, overlooked, subjugated, and oppressed.  It does not. Wars that have sacralized the meaning of America have not put an end to the war that continues over recognizing all the sacrifices made in America.

Pioneers Memorial in New Ulm, MinnesotaIf you’re inclined to dismiss this view as “revisionism,” first follow Haberski’s advice and read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Atlantic essay making “The Case for Reparations,” which Haberski thinks “uncovers layers of racism deposited over time that created the foundation on which we now live and have lived for a long time.”

And consider how another group with an even older “legitimate claim to defining America” has also been “forgotten, overlooked, subjugated, and oppressed” on days like today…

In my Memento belli post this morning, I shared some photos of memorials in New Ulm, Minnesota, one of which pays tribute to the “sturdy pioneers who founded the territory of Minnesota a century ago” and died in the US-Dakota War of 1862. (North of downtown New Ulm, an obelisk in the City Cemetery pairs tributes to those who died in the Civil War and those who died in the conflict with the Dakota.) While the New Ulm memorial exhorts viewers to “consider the debt they owe to those worthy pioneers and emulate their fortitude in preserving democratic principles in this nation,” it is striking to see how the indigenous people who lost their land, lives, and culture to those “worthy pioneers” are all but forgotten. The only evidence of their existence is the image of a European settler extending his hand in peace to a Dakota warrior who carries a blanket bedecked with swastikas. (This on a memorial dedicated nine years after the end of World War II!)


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