From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: A Fractious but Very American Journey

by Ken Feltman, American Legion Post 130, United States Marine Corps (adapted from remarks at the Falls Church, Virginia Memorial Day celebration)

Today, we celebrate our country’s most sacred day: Memorial Day.

This quintessential American holiday comes to us through a typically fractious, confusing, well-intentioned, only-in-America struggle. Who could imagine that we Americans would find so many things to disagree about as we tried to honor and remember those from among us who were lost in war?

Individually, Americans are mostly friendly and helpful. Collectively, we can be a difficult people. Perhaps the “created equal” part of Americans should be restated as “created equally opinionated.”

This trait is not a secret. During a meeting between U.S. immigration officials and representatives of Iraqi Kurds last year, one Kurdish spokesman remarked that Kurds make good Americans because “we’re stubborn, too.” The remark drew knowing laughter from the Americans and knowing smiles from the Kurds.

So often, we think of ourselves as something other than one people called Americans. We are forever dividing ourselves into smaller groups: Korean-Americans, Cajuns, Italian-Americans, Cherokee, Irish-Americans, Latinos, Norwegian-Americans and (perhaps the most intractable of all) Texans.

Freedom is never born easily, anywhere, anytime. Freedom comes harder when so many have different traditions, different needs, different hopes. Compound those differences with Yankee stubbornness and Southern suspicion and you have roadblocks everywhere. Memorial Day was never going to be born easily.

In the beginning, this day was called Decoration Day. Just as that name has changed over time, so have attitudes, in both the states of the old Union and the states of the Confederacy.

Decoration Day was to be a day of remembrance, honoring those who died in the service of the United States of America. It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan of Illinois, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR claimed as members all who had fought for the Union. That made the GAR – and the new holiday – suspect in parts of the South. Was Decoration Day just a plot to keep Northern troops ready for new hostilities? Why were only those from the North to be honored?

Some argued that Logan was presumptuous, that the Grand Army of the Republic – with its pretentious, European-sounding name – did not have the power to enforce the holiday upon the states of the former Confederacy.

  • Logan noted that valor has no boundaries. He reminded people that soldiers from the North were buried in Southern ground and soldiers from the South were buried in Northern ground. Everyone was to be included.
  • He spoke of Arlington Cemetery, taken from land that had belonged to General Robert E. Lee’s wife’s family, descendants of George Washington.

Logan stated: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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 church yard in the land.” A Chicago newspaper editor suggested that “their country” meant the Confederate States as well as the United States. Many disagreed but the holiday proceeded.

The original date of Decoration Day was chosen not for what it was but for what it was not: It was not the anniversary of any particular battle. We still have disagreements over the date.

On that first Decoration Day, General (later President) James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there, in common ground.

Perhaps Garfield was a poor choice. He was not popular in the South. During the battle of Shiloh (known as Pittsburg Landing in the South) he attacked the forces of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston, a Southern favorite who had just routed the troops of General Ulysses S. Grant. Johnston, considered by many on both sides to be the best military strategist of the war, was killed in the fighting.

Nonetheless, Garfield’s remarks were accepted as conciliatory. The wounds began to heal, slowly, fitfully, region by region, town by town.

That first Decoration Day was a success, especially in the North. Soon, over two dozen cities and towns claimed to be the birthplace of Decoration Day. Finally, in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson thought he could settle the arguments by proclaiming that Waterloo, New York, was the official birthplace of what was by then called Memorial Day. President Johnson failed. There are still rival claims from other places, just as some in the former Confederate States for years have had an ambivalent view of what one Southern legislator called “another Yankee imposition.”

Regardless of the squabbling and hurt feelings over its origins and intentions, one thing is clear: Memorial Day was born out of the Civil War (or the War Between the States or, to some Virginians, the “recent unpleasantness”) and was born out of a desire to honor our dead.

Still, we found reasons to squabble. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted the change, with some Southern states being the last to conform.

Many people and groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, continue to believe that moving the date to a Monday made it all too easy for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day.

Beginning in 1987, Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a wounded World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. Inouye continued introducing the resolution in every Congress until his death in 2012. No one questioned Inouye’s patriotism. But many wanted a three-day weekend.

Today, groups from all across the country continue to ask Congress to return Memorial Day to its traditional May 30.

How very American: We can never really settle things, once and for all. Everything is always in transition, nothing is ever final. We are always tinkering, arguing, finding reasons to disagree.

Or is this our way of attempting to perfect our democracy?

We in this small Virginia place known as Falls Church occupy ambivalent ground to this day. In 1860, many people in this area wanted to stay within the Union. Others wanted to break away, some because they owned slaves, more because they resented what they considered “Northern aggression.” Most considered themselves Virginians first and citizens of the national government second. The Potomac River sometimes must have seemed as wide as an ocean.

At other times, it was just a small stream, as it must have seemed to General Robert E. Lee as he looked across the river toward the White House from his home, the Custis-Lee Mansion – now called Arlington House. Lee declined President Lincoln’s request to take command of the Union forces and left his home, never to return. Soon both Union and Confederate soldiers were buried within a few yards of Lee’s home.

Did it have to end in such bloodshed? Do the very ideals which make us strong also lead to our greatest weaknesses? A British colleague once remarked that “Americans have too much freedom. You have no restraint. We have the Queen to make the divisive but unimportant decisions.”

We have drawn blood over the most basic human values: emancipation, suffrage, religious freedom. Today, we battle over abortion, marriage, the right to bear arms, control of our children’s education. When these battles are decided, who believes that no new battle-lines will be drawn?

Democracy is not the default form of government. Democracy is difficult to create and keep. We have created the most unrestrained form of democracy. We seem to be reaching for the extremes to validate the basics.

We have drawn blood over things that continue to be very important to our understanding of our democracy. We have also drawn blood over things that seem, in retrospect, unimportant. Could it be that even the smallest infringement on a restive democracy can stunt its growth and, at some future point, make everyone less free, even if no one notices today?

All our differences – political, territorial, ethnic, religious – add the flavors, the spices, to our national stew. What a hardy broth! What a contentious gumbo!

As a people, we seem to enjoy, even rejoice, in our differences. We are good at creating differences. What about unity? Can we enjoy and rejoice in our unity? We all know that, together, we are stronger. But we are so very American!

Georgia Senator and Governor Zell Miller put it well 11 years ago:

“For it has been said, so truthfully, that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.

It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. 

It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. 

It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag.”

President Reagan warned us:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

What sort of country, what sort of commonwealth, are we going to hand on to the generations that may gather here in 10, 50, 100 years? We have a big responsibility. So do those who follow us. Together, in our fractious but ever-so-American way, we must lead.

It is our turn and our responsibility.

About Radnor Reports

Ken Feltman is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists. He is retired chairman of Radnor Inc., an international political consulting and government relations firm in Washington, D.C. Known as a coalition builder, he has participated in election campaigns and legislative efforts in the United States and several other countries.
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