This Memorial Day, many Americans are likely to be barbecuing, enjoying time with family and friends after the separations of the pandemic, or taking advantage of sales. A 2019 Economist-YouGov poll found that only 17 percent of Americans planned to do activities related to the official meaning of the federal holiday — commemorating troops killed in U.S. military conflicts — such as attending parades or memorial services or visiting gravesites.
Few Americans know the holiday’s origins in the Civil War, which are tied to the politics of race, emancipation and power. Over time, the holiday has become a homogenized celebration of patriotism emphasizing American troops’ valor, shopping and the unofficial kickoff of summer. Here’s what you probably didn’t already know.
Memorial Day’s different origins and meanings
Memorial Day developed from many springtime rituals, known interchangeably as either Decoration Day or Memorial Day, created to commemorate the Civil War dead. Although many towns across the United States from Arlington, Va., to Waterloo, N.Y., claim to have held the “original” Memorial Day, the holiday probably had dozens or hundreds of origins and diffused across the country.
One possible “first” observance of the holiday was the ceremony organized by the recently freed Black community of Charleston, S.C., in 1865. As historian David Blight documents, Black Charlestonians organized a burial of Union prisoners of war who had died in a Confederate war prison. They built an enclosure for the burial ground, established rows of graves and set an archway over the entrance gate inscribed “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Ten thousand people attended, mostly formerly enslaved people. They sang hymns and the national anthem, read Bible verses and decorated graves with flowers, followed by speeches, picnics and Union troop marches that included Black units. As Blight wrote, Black Americans who celebrated Memorial Day “converted Confederate ruin into their own festival of freedom.” Over time, some of that celebration of emancipation may have been subsumed by Juneteenth, the anniversary of slavery’s end in the United States.
White Americans in the North experienced the holiday through different political narratives. Among Black communities, much of Memorial Day’s focus was on mourning and tragedy. By contrast, White Northerners emphasized rebirth, national reconciliation and patriotism. One Ohio newspaper wrote that Decoration Day, with its “nation-loving throngs,” should be second only to Independence Day, for “what the latter was meant to secure, the former stands for.” Memorial Day for White Northerners was a chance to close the book on the Civil War and emphasize unity — and, of course, drive home the North’s righteous defeat of slavery while criticizing the South’s backward defense of it.
A third group interpreted the holiday quite differently. White Southerners understood Memorial Day through the Lost Cause narrative, which framed the war as a valiant effort for a noble but lost cause: the South’s liberty from federal government interference. Like Confederate memorials, Memorial Day was used to justify and valorize the Confederate cause. Many White Southerners resisted the nationalization of the holiday; a Savannah, Ga., newspaper observed in 1907 that the “Federal Memorial Day … will not be observed to any extent in this city.” Several states still observe a separate Confederate Memorial Day.
Over time, Memorial Day became one homogenized, national holiday
After Reconstruction, these different regional and racial narratives began to converge.
Several factors prompted this convergence. One was veterans’ and widows’ groups on both sides of the war. For example, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group, called for the national observance of Decoration Day in 1868.
Another was the inclusion of slain soldiers from other wars in the memorialization efforts. Not until after World War I was the holiday widely considered as a date to memorialize soldiers of all American wars, although some towns and cities commemorated more recent dead before then. With a common foreign enemy in the World Wars, regional and racial differences in Memorial Day traditions gave way to patriotism as the central meaning of the holiday.
Another factor was the Great Migration. This massive movement of Black Americans out of the Southeast probably helped standardize traditions, like Memorial Day parades, across Black communities.
Finally, the decline of civil society groups like fraternal orders, women’s groups, immigrant cultural organizations and other local clubs throughout the 20th century meant that Memorial Day celebrations became less the domain of civil society and more the domain of government and business.
When Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1971, national narratives of victory, triumph and the necessity of military conflict came to the fore. Meanwhile, market forces made Memorial Day weekend a shopping and leisure holiday like Labor Day and the Fourth of July. Today, Americans are likely to encounter Memorial Day through advertisements for sales at department stores, car dealerships and other retailers. This overshadowed regional and racial differences in how the holiday was observed and understood. Today, the Civil War roots of Memorial Day are not often framed as central to the holiday.
Why what we celebrate matters
These shifts in collective understandings of Memorial Day are important because who gets mourned, and how, shapes what kinds of politics we deem acceptable in the present and future.
This year, Memorial Day’s closeness to the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and to the nation’s slow emergence from the covid-19 pandemic underscores the inevitably political nature of death and mourning. Although Memorial Day’s origins, intertwined with race and power, are not fully understood today, they were inherently political — and our contemporary practices are rooted in those politics.
Lucy Britt, a political scientist who studies memory and race, will be a visiting assistant professor at Gettysburg College in 2021.