Do you feel like spending Memorial Day 2019 in the town where it began? Good luck with that. Twenty-five municipalities claim to be the holiday’s birthplace. It’s a murky field of study. Historians innocently blunder into the controversy the same way mastodons once wandered into the La Brea Tar Pits — and with similar results.
Let’s start with what we know for sure. Back in 1868, Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan was commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was an organization of Union Civil War veterans, much like today’s American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He urged that May 30 be observed as Decoration Day, a time to place flowers on the graves of Northern war dead. It’s believed the 30th was selected because flowers would be blooming all around the country then.
A large ceremony was held that first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where future President James Garfield spoke for an hour and a half. Ulysses S. Grant, who would become president himself 10 months later, and much of the Union Army’s top brass were also there. It was the first of Arlington’s annual May observances honoring he fallen, a tradition that continues to this day.
But go back beyond 1868 and things get very hazy, very fast. Claims of which town commenced the custom are frequent and intense.
There’s Columbus, Miss., where on April 25, 1866, ladies laid flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers killed in the nearby bloody Battle of Shiloh. Farther east, Columbus and Macon, Ga., each say they got the ball rolling with observances there. A cemetery in Carbondale, Ill., Logan’s wartime home, contains a stone saying the first Memorial Day observance was held there on April 29, 1866. Charleston, S.C., Richmond, Va., Boalsburg, Pa., and many other localities all claimed the honor is theirs.
In 1966, Congress waded into the dispute by declaring Waterloo, N.Y., to be the holiday’s official birthplace. Why Waterloo? It seems a special day of observance was held there on May 6, 1866. Stores were closed, flags were flown at half-staff, and, of course, graves were decorated with flowers. That, Waterloo’s supporters argue, shows it was an organized townwide event. Incidents in other places, they say, were just ad hoc groups of women taking flowers to the local cemetery. Waterloo’s observance had all the hallmarks of a true holiday, and Congress eventually agreed.
But that didn’t stop the spatting.
In the 53 years since the official designation was bestowed, adherents of other towns’ claim to the title keep arguing for a transfer. They’ll likely still be arguing about it 53 years from now, too. There’s even a separate debate over which town hosts the nation’s oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Doylestown, Pa., has a parade that’s been held each year since 1868. But the parade in Rochester, Wis., started in 1867.
It’s worth noting that in spring 1917, just as America was entering World War I, the holiday’s focus began shifting from decorating just Civil War graves to honoring everyone who fell in all American wars.
After World War II, the name began changing from the quaint Decoration Day to Memorial Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, both cementing the name Memorial Day and moving its observance to the last Monday in May.
One important parting note: At the conclusion of Arlington National Cemetery’s first ceremony in 1868, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphans' Home walked among the rows of tombstones, singing hymns as they strewed flowers on all graves, both Union and Confederate. The very children who had lived through the war and lost their fathers in its carnage paid tribute to their parents’ adversaries.
In 2019’s highly divisive climate, where revisionist extremists gleefully erase anyone or anything they dislike or disapprove of from our past, it would be well to revisit 1868’s example so that once more “a little child shall lead them.”
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.