Did slaves invent Memorial Day? The holiday’s controversial origins


Memorial Day’s origins are disputed by various factions around the country.

Like so many American traditions, Memorial Day has been sanitized and simplified; separated from its original, complex history. Today, the last Monday in May is a time of recreation and recognition of those who died fighting in American conflicts. In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day; it became the first municipality to officially declare Memorial Day in 1873. But the origins of the day are from eight years earlier and much further South.

On May 1, 1865, freed slaves gathered in Charleston, South Carolina to commemorate the death of Union soldiers and the end of the Civil War. The group of freedmen had spent days preparing for the event, which included the reading of scriptures, singing, children strewing flowers and bouquets placed at various sites. Three years later, General John Logan issued a special order that May 30, 1868 be observed as Decoration Day. This was the first true Memorial Day; documented as a day “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.”

Because of the divisions that still existed post-Civil War, many southern states didn’t recognize Memorial Day. The federal government created national cemeteries for men who died in the war, and the northern states gradually made Decoration Day an official holiday throughout the 1870s. Conversely, the south began celebrating their own version of Decoration Day. From April to June, women would kneel beneath statues of dead soldiers of the Confederacy, and there would be stories of the men who had died and were celebrated throughout the southern states.  Memorial Day only became a unified, national holiday well into the 20th century with the advent of World War I and the recognition of American enemies abroad.

But those original revelers should not be forgotten. Not only because of their initiation of a proud American tradition, but for the sad irony in how little of the American promise was attainable for them. In addition to post-Reconstruction terrorism and economic disenfranchisement of former slaves, there was also large numbers of deaths resulting from poor health conditions. Following the Civil War, former slaves had to contend with cholera, dysentery, and yellow fever; harsh illnesses of the time that were especially prevalent amongst the poor. These diseases had thrived and been spread during the war. According to Jim Downs, “[The] war became the largest biological crisis of nineteenth-century America.”

Outside of Waterloo, N.Y. There are other towns and states that have attempted to lay claim to the origins of Memorial Day, but there is no account that predates the Charleston celebration. For all intents and purposes, the day of remembrance–this original “Decoration Day”–was the beginning of Americans recognizing the sacrifice soldiers had made for their freedom. Enjoy the holiday and remember those who have lost their lives fighting on behalf of America and also those fighting because of America.

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