On Saturday, May 30, 1868, in scores of northern cities, towns, and villages, knots of Union veterans, marching to the mournful wail of fifes, processed to the graves of their fallen comrades. Some clutched bullet riddled regimental banners, adorned with the names of their hard-fought Civil War engagements. In fancy carriages rode men who lost their legs in battle or to disease. A steady drizzle dampened much of New England, but it left the soldiers, sprigs of fresh evergreen affixed to their lapels, undeterred.
From Dorchester, Massachusetts, to Bunker Hill, Illinois—from Brimfield, Ohio, to Vallejo, California—veterans placed wreaths and planted flags, delivered speeches and rehearsed original odes. The men conducted their rites at the invitation of John Alexander Logan, the walrus-mustached Illinois general and veteran of Vicksburg who now led the Grand Army of the Republic, a national fraternal order for Union veterans. Less than four weeks before, from the Grand Army’s headquarters on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., Logan issued a circular known as General Orders No. 11.
“The 30th day of May,” he instructed, “is designated 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.” As the historian David W. Blight discovered, Logan did not invent but instead appropriated, of great and immediate necessity, a tradition that some South Carolina freedmen began the month after Lee’s surrender. In Charleston, African-Americans festooned a mass grave containing the bodies of hundreds of Union soldiers who died there in Confederate captivity.
Now the ritual would reach across the nation. “Let us,” the brawny commander appealed, “gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.” Logan hoped that these spring ceremonials, like the Grand Army organization itself, would continue as long as “a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”
Decoration Day was about paying tribute to the dead, but it was all the same about the survivors of this most unprecedented war in American history—a conflict that, within the space of four years, snuffed out the lives of more than 750,000 soldiers and maimed many thousands more. The magnitude of loss and anguish beleaguered even the victors. Moreover, a difficult return to civilian life persuaded many veterans that they shared more in common with the slain. “The dead come back and live with us,” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who fought with the storied 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, hauntingly explained. “I see them now, more than I can number, as once I saw them on Earth.” And then there was that fated question: “but why did I survive?”
“Soldiers,” one ex-cavalryman candidly observed, this day “‘tis for you to bring memorials to their graves more than [ordinary civilians].” Although the men buried in his southwestern New Hampshire town were “individual members of families, citizens, and neighbors,” he explained to his fellow veterans that, “to you … they were brothers, and more—they were comrades of one great family.” “True men,” insisted bespectacled Alonzo Quint Hall, chaplain of the Second Massachusetts Volunteers, at the 1868 service in New Bedford, “do not forget those with whom they stood shoulder to shoulder in the greatest, hardest times this land ever saw.”
As Logan trusted, each succeeding spring would bring new wreaths, new flowers, and new speeches—the details devotedly superintended by individual posts of the Grand Army of the Republic. Especially through the anxious first decade after Appomattox, Decoration Day became an opportunity for Union veterans to voice their insight that if “crushed,” the rebellion was “not dead.” Their former enemies were winning the peace. Not until the nation made good on the promises of the Civil War could Billy Yank rest assured that he had not suffered—nor had his beloved comrades died—in vain.
But these were hardly popular sentiments in an age of reconciliation. Men, women, and children throughout the North celebrated the military triumph of Lincoln’s armies, but they looked ahead, impatient to suspend sectional bitterness. This fashioned many veterans, for whom the rebellion lived on in uncertain limps, distressed bowels, and sleepless nights, as disturbing—even objectionable—relics of the past. “Some men look angrily on the great brotherhood of former soldiery, which now covers the loyal land,” Alonzo Hall preempted in his oration. “Bear with us.” Acknowledging that it was “a weakness in us to cherish old memories,” he urged hasty civilians to “deal tenderly with us, and grant us this one little boon”: a day, for themselves, to ritualize what they always remembered. “There is no danger in these flowers. There are no bullets hid under them. Peacefully, soberly, reverentially, loyally, we lay the flowers on the graves of the dead.”
With time, restraint replaced rancor. And with new conflicts, the last Monday in May became an occasion to memorialize not just Billy Yank, but new generations of American veterans. Memorial Day—the name we use in lieu of Decoration Day—did not earn its place among federal holidays until the first Nixon administration. Since then, it has become almost obligatory for editorial writers to bemoan the alleged indifference of many Americans to honoring “appropriately” the sacrifices of their nation’s war dead. To be sure, we as citizens have a solemn duty to honor and remember the men and women who have given their lives in the name of our country. As General Logan put it, “let no vandalism of avarice … testify to this or the coming generations, that we have forgotten, as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic.”
Still, in an ironic sense, those hackneyed laments betray that civilians, separated from veterans by an unbridgeable chasm of experience, continue to misunderstand the deepest meaning of the day. Because from its inception, Memorial Day was never about us—it was always for them.
Brian Matthew Jordan, assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, is the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (Liveright, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History.