You may know that Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, but did you know that originally it honored only those who died in the Civil War?
In 1868, John Logan, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans, issued an order designating May 30th as a memorial day. He said this day should be for the purpose of “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Logan also asked that we guard their graves so that future generations can remember the cost of a free and undivided republic.
Primary sources from the Library of Congress can help students explore some of the ways people have commemorated Memorial Day in the past.
- Listen to the recording of the poem The Blue and the Gray. Ask them to explore the symbolism of the poem. What does it mean and how does it relate to the creation of Decoration Day?
- Read the oral histories of Kate Flenniken, Lula Bowers, Herbert Ruft, and the Poppy Lady and compare how different people at different periods of U.S. history observed Decoration Day/Memorial Day.
- Compare the images found in Halt of the Grenadiers Rochambeau in Union Square New York. “Decoration day” May 30, 1884, and Cérémonie du “Memorial Day” au Cimetière Américain de Suresnes, le 30 Mai 1920 using this primary source analysis tool. Explore the differences between each image. Do the students believe that these are appropriate ways to remember the war dead? Explain why or why not.
What comparisons did students make between these commemorations from the past and the commemorations of today? Let us know in the comments.
I think it’s time to update this piece with the most relevant scholarship and include the first observation of “Memorial Day” on May 1st by the freed people of Charleston South Carolina honoring Union dead from a local prisoner of war camp.