Putting a Bloom on Memorial Day

Reflecting on the meaning of the national holiday

The flowers on the graves every year are a big salute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our great nation. For there is no more solemn a national holiday than Memorial Day—which recognizes those who died in U.S. military service, not those who served—and it is treated with such reverence at ceremonies throughout the country.

It is as good a day as any to remember how strong our country can be when united, as well as the cost we’re willing to pay to protect our way of life, but also one to reflect on exactly how divided we can become—and the possible consequences of it.

Memorial Day itself was born from the greatest internal conflict the United States has ever faced—the Civil War. The first Memorial Day, originally termed Decoration Day, was officially established after the war in 1868 by Gen. John A. Logan. commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, who designated May 30 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 churchyard in the land.”

The first national celebration of the holiday took place that same year at Arlington National Cemetery, where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers. With up to 750,000 men perishing in the Civil War, however, women in both Northern and Southern states had already begun the practice before the war’s end at the many veterans’ cemeteries.

By the end of the 19th century, Decoration Day had given way to Memorial Day, but the South didn’t acknowledge the national holiday until after World War I, when Memorial Day became a day to honor Americans who died in any U.S. war.

The spirit of Memorial Day, though, can be found even before General Logan made his proclamation. The holiday’s humble beginnings happened on April 25, 1866, when a women’s memorial association in the hospital town of Columbus, Mississippi, decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers.

That unprecedented act of compassion and reconciliation prompted Horace Greeley, publisher of the New-York Tribune, to print an editorial praising the gesture, and inspired New York judge and academic Francis Miles Finch to write his most famous poem, “The Blue and The Gray,” which honors soldiers on both sides, concluding with the stanza:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Love and tears for the Blue,

Tears and love for the Gray.

As we approach this Memorial Day, and wars continue to be waged and American lives are still lost to enemies who seek to take away our freedoms, the holiday unfortunately remains as necessary today as it was in the 1860s, if only for different reasons.

But the empathy shown by those Mississippi mothers who decorated Union soldiers’ graves should be embraced with the same fervor as we seemingly move closer to a 21st-century Civil War, one that has already begun to divide families and turn brother against brother.

Until we learn to stop fighting one another, we really haven’t begun to honor those who fought and died for us. 

Sean DeFrank is a former Vegas Seven senior editor and a twice honorably discharged U.S. Army Infantry veteran who served as part of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.