I don’t celebrate Memorial Day.
I do cook out and consider it to be the summer season and I enjoy the three-day weekend, but celebration brings to mind happier events. I do not wish people a “Happy Memorial Day.” Instead I observe Memorial Day as a day of remembrance, when we honor those who gave, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “The last full measure.”
There arguments as to how it started, but even though decorating the graves of fallen warriors is an ancient tradition, it took root in America after the Civil War. The Civil War was devastating not only in terms of bullets, but disease that swept through the armies before, during, and after the battles.
The North credits the Grand Army of the Republic—the veterans of the Union military—for starting it in 1868. They called it “Decoration Day” because of the flowers on the graves; its first observance was on May 30th because that date did not coincide with any significant Civil War battle.
There are others (including the US National Park Service) who claim that it began in Columbus, Georgia in 1866. There it was called “Memorial Day,” although after the North co-opted the idea (and the title), they called it “Confederate Memorial Day.” There was not a specific date throughout the South.
There is one other theory. In South Carolina, Union soldiers were held in a makeshift prisoner of war camp that was actually a race course. At least 257 Union soldiers who died in the camp were buried in unmarked graves. In 1865 freedmen—African-Americans who had been slaves—cleaned and landscaped the site and built an enclosure with an arch that said, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Regardless of its history, we now celebrate it on the last Monday in May with lots of sales at every retail store, and not enough thought of those who died in while in the service.
For clarity’s sake:
Memorial Day—the last Monday in May—honors service members who died while serving.
Veterans’ Day—November 11th commemorating the Armistice of World War I, which occurred at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month—honors all who served in uniform.
Armed Forces Day—The third Saturday in May—honors those currently serving.