The last Monday in May serves as a moment for Americans to gather together. More than just a long weekend, it serves as a chance to remember those who have given their all in service of the United States. While today we may recognize the rhythms and patterns, this holiday hasn’t always looked this way. Indeed, Memorial Day has undergone frequent changes as the country grows and learns from the experiences of different wars.
As you take time to recognize the sacrifices of so many, you can keep the history of Memorial Day in the back of your mind. Join Patriot Angels as we explore some of the interesting changes that Memorial Day has undergone the last 150 years.
A Modern Practice with Ancient Roots
Many of the first Memorial Day-like activities were first practiced in the United States in the mid-19th century. But Americans were not the first to practice such events and certainly will not be the last. In fact, the historical records show that Greeks and Romans in ancient times held similar days of remembrance. It was common practice for there to be public funerals for soldiers who had fallen on the battlefield, and for the remains to be placed in public for mourning. Perhaps one of the earliest known commemorations of fallen soldiers was in 431 B.C.E. Here Athenian general and statesman, Pericles, commemorated the sacrifices of the soldiers killed in the Peloponnesian war.
Some of the Earliest Commemorations were Held by Freedmen
The American Civil War was the single largest source of U.S. casualties in any war before or since. Over the course of four destructive years, the entire nation was restructured. Perhaps the most obvious effect was the emancipation of the hundreds of thousands of enslaved people in the American South. Near the end of the war, the Confederacy held thousands of Union soldiers as prisoners. One of these prison camps was located at an abandoned racetrack. Ultimately, due to poor conditions, more than 250 Union prisoners would die here.
While these Union soldiers were gone, they were certainly not forgotten. Weeks after the end of the war, a congregation of more than a thousand recently-freed slaves, escorted by regiments of U.S. colored troops, went to the former racetrack. The procession sang songs of worship, read from the Bible, and marked the graves in the cemetery.
More Than 20 Towns Believe They Started the Holiday
The end of the Civil War led to the proliferation of memorial ceremonies throughout the country. While many of these events occurred naturally within communities, some believe that they were the first to do so. A group of women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claimed that they were the first to recognize a “memorial day” when they gathered in 1864 to mourn those lost at Gettysburg. Others argue that an 1866 parade in Carbondale, Illinois was the official start for the holiday. However, the argument has been put to rest at the federal level since 1966. That year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that recognized Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
The Reasons it’s Celebrated in May
General John Logan was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran’s group for Union soldiers after the Civil War. Using his skills as a former U.S. Congressman, Logan was the first to champion the idea of Memorial Day at the federal level in May 1868. Logan’s larger-than-life status has meant that much of his work has a sort of mythic status to it. As such, one of the enduring legends of Memorial Day is that Logan picked May 30 as the date because it was one of the few days of the year that did not have an anniversary of a Civil War battle. However, other historians argue that Logan chose the date because many of the flowers in the country would be in full bloom at this time of the year.
Recognize the Sacrifices of the Veterans in Your Life
Here at Patriot Angels, we recognize the efforts of our veterans every day. To best express our gratitude, we help ailing and aging veterans get the help they need by connecting them and their families with the VA Aid and Attendance Pension. If you or a loved one are in need of long-term medical care or require the service of another person to assist you with daily activities, the pension can help cover some of these costs. Connect with us today and see how we can help you now.