It isn't even Memorial Day any more, really. And wasn't to start with.
So where did it come from? Unlike many holidays, there is no centuries-old background here. The background there is will help not only understand Memorial Day for what it is and isn't, but our secular holidays as a whole, and provide some eye-openers on the political scene.
On 5 May 1868 General John A Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, designated 30 May 1868 "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". Not only for that, but also to "renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan". The designation was for 1868 only, but it expressed "the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades".
What does this mean?
The above words, from the proclamation itself, General Orders No.11 from G.A.R. headquarters, make it clear that the reference is to the Civil War. So who is Logan and what is the G.A.R.?
The latter was not a unit in the Civil War. It was a group founded 6 April 1866 by Benjamin F Stephenson MD in Decatur IL for veterans of the U.S. Army who had served in the Civil War. He himself had served as surgeon of the 14th Illinois Infantry with the rank of Major. The unit was a regiment with the Army of the Tennessee for a three year term ending 24 June 1864, after which he returned to Springfield IL, the state capital, to resume medical practice.
Among the notable commanding officers of the Army of the Tennessee are its first, Ulysses S Grant, and its second, William T Sherman, who arranged for John A Logan to be its fifth and last after the war was actually over. There's a story there. The third commander, James B McPherson, was killed in action 22 July 1864 during the Battle of Atlanta, and Logan temporarily replaced him, but command went to another, Oliver O Howard from the Army of the Cumberland. Howard, like Sherman, was West Point; Logan wasn't. However, Sherman arranged for Logan to become commander so he could lead the army in the Grand Review to kind of make up for being passed over. It disbanded 1 August 1865.
And what was the Grand Review? An event on 23 and 24 May 1865, whose full name is Grand Review of the Armies, in Washington DC to celebrate the end of the war. On 23 May, Major General George Meade of the Army of the Potomac, who had won over General Lee at Gettysburg, led about 80,000 of its men in a six hour parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the following day Sherman led about 65,000 men combined from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia in another six hour parade, Howard riding with Sherman and Logan leading the Army of the Tennessee.
General Logan served as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 1st Illinois Infantry during the Mexican-American War -- during which he learned to speak Spanish -- graduated in law from the University of Louisville in 1851, practiced law and rose in a political career from county clerk to the Illinois state house of representatives and was serving as a member of the US House of Representatives, Democrat from Illinois, at the outset of the war. He was a volunteer at Bull Run, or Manassas, after which he resigned his congressional seat and organised the 31st Illinois Volunteers, with the rank of Colonel. After the war he switched parties, was a Representative and then Senator from Illinois, and ran as the Vice Presidential candidate on the Republican ticket with James G Blaine in the election of 1884, which lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
There's another story. Cleveland, whose Civil War service was paying a Polish immigrant to serve in his place when he was drafted -- legal under the Conscription Act of 1863 -- was a classic liberal, "liberal" being as unrelated to what the term means now as "Democrat". He opposed taxes, supported the gold standard and lowering tariffs imposed on imports to protect domestic products, worked for reduction and limitation of government, and opposed government intervention in the welfare of individuals. In vetoing a measure to provide a "bail out" for Texas farmers ruined by drought, he said the veto was " to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood". Not a lot of that kind of talk from Democrats lately.
The election was hard fought. The Democrats accused Blaine of influencing legislation to benefit railroads whose bonds he owned, which was long denied until letters were discovered making it a little harder to deny, some of them ending "Burn this letter", which in turn gave rise to the campaign slogan "Blaine, Blaine, James G Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine". The Republicans in turn tried to sully Cleveland's image when a woman named him the father of her illegitimate child, and Cleveland admitted he did pay her child support. She however was known to have, so to speak, played the field, including with Cleveland's law partner, for whom the child was named, and while Cleveland himself actually did not know who the father was, being the only bachelor among the possibilities, took responsibility, leading to the campaign slogan "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?"
And you thought politics only got rough and dirty lately! It gets worse. Blaine, whose mother was Irish Catholic, was hoping for support from that community, not typically known for supporting Republicans, but then one of Blaine's supporters denounced the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" (the party of Lincoln not being popular in the South) which lost him a ton of votes in swing states to Cleveland, who won the popular vote by less than 1%, though being swing states the electoral college vote was decisive. After Cleveland won, the slogan was turned around to "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa, gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!".
It gets worse yet. In 1888 he was renominated and ran again, and the Republicans ran Benjamin Harrison, Republican Senator from Indiana, against him instead of Logan -- oh yeah, Logan, we'll get back to him -- for high tariffs and big government -- yes, you read it right, that was the Republican position, big government -- and while Cleveland did not win all the swing states as before, what did him in was, guess what, vote fraud by the Republicans in, guess where, Indiana, where Cleveland narrowly lost, however, it gave Harrison the electoral votes to win although he lost the national popular vote. And you thought politics only got rough and dirty lately!
Cleveland came back though. Harrison's high tariffs, and big budgets -- he was the first President to have a billion dollar budget, yes Republicans for a big budget -- and support for backing currency with silver as well as gold -- why was that a problem, because silver wasn't worth as much as its legal gold equivalent -- with taxpayers paying in silver, cheap money to "help the poor", but the government's creditors required payment in gold, the economy went to hell. With the Republicans losing supporters of free silver to the new Populist Party, Cleveland was elected President again in 1892. He thus became the only President (so far) to serve non continuous terms, and will, btw, therefore have two coins in the Presidential Dollar series.
Oh yeah, Logan. Had the Blaine/Logan ticket won, he would have died in office. He died 26 December 1886. Staunchly Republican, he became Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic in 1868 and continued in that position until 1871 when he became a US Senator. He was always active in veteran's affairs, and public education -- the non West Pointer. A GAR endorsement was essential to winning a Republican nomination for President for decades. The GAR also was influential in the establishment of Old Soldiers' Homes, which became the basis for the present US Department of Veterans Affairs. At its peak in 1890, the GAR had 490,000 members, but, realising numbers must eventually decline, in 1881 the GAR founded the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) to eventually carry on.
And so they did: the last encampment, as national meetings were called, was in 1949, and the last surviving member, named Albert Woolson, died 2 August 1956 at age 109, it was thought, though census records now indicate 106. There's a story there too. He was from New York state. His father was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh and taken to a military hospital in Windom, Minnesota, where he and his mother moved, though his father later died of his wounds. Whereupon Albert enlisted in Company C of the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment as a drummer, which is not just for parades and stuff like now. Then, as for centuries before, there was no motorised transport, and drummers were key in both setting marching pace and boosting morale during combat. Albert enlisted 10 October 1864 just months before the war's end and the unit did not see action. He returned to Minnesota, lived out his life as a carpenter, and died in Duluth.
General Eisenhower, President at the time said of his passing " "The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army ... His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States". The recognition of both sides was not new; at the first Memorial Day graves from both sides were decorated.
With his death, the GAR ceased to exist. Memorial Day did not. More or less. The original name was Decoration Day, from the original proclamation for the decorating of veterans' graves of the Civil War, which also, in 1868, envisioned its existence until the last survivor was gone, which was 1956, 88 years later. It's expanded a bit. After World War One, it had become a Federal holiday observed on the original date, 30 May, and was expanded to included the decoration of the graves of all who died in any US military engagement. The alternate name for Decoration Day, Memorial Day, was first used in 1882, and after World War Two, which gave many more to be remembered and whose graves to be decorated, became the more common name, and was made the official name in 1967.
The following year, the Uniform Holidays Bill changed its observance along with Veterans' Day (11 November, on which this blog also posts annually) and Washington's Birthday (22 February) to create three three-day-long weekends to take effect in 1971. None of these observances were instituted to give people a three-day week-end, with an extra day off and cook-outs and sports and big sales at the stores, but to remember as a nation particular people and things.
Washington's Birthday was chosen to commemorate the commander of the Continental Army in the war for independence and the unanimous choice of the Electoral College to be the first President, a unifying figure for the new nation and model for its future Presidents, often called "the father of his country", on his, well, birthday, 22 February. Veterans Day is now called that to commemorate all veterans, and was originally to commemorate the armistice which ended World War One starting on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 11 November. Decoration Day was chosen to commemorate Civil War dead on 30 May precisely because that date is not connected with any particular battle or other event of the Civil War.
The dates mean something, closing up shop for a particular commemoration of a particular something on a particular date, not an opportunity to take the 3rd Monday in February, the 4th Monday of October, and the last Monday in May off from work to do other things, or stay at work to boost business from big sales attracting those off work. The outcry over this loss of the meaning of the day, and acquiring meanings unrelated to it, was enough that Veterans Day was moved back to its original date in 1978, but with the provision that if that date fell on a Sunday it could be observed the following Monday, or if on a Saturday either on that Saturday or the Friday before. In the 1980s advertisers began the push to boost sales on the new day for Washington's Birthday as "Presidents Day" including Lincoln whose birthday is 12 February. So now we have Washington's Birthday, which is still the official name of the holiday, not on Washington's birthday, not altogether about Washington, not generally known under its name but an advertising nickname, and not really about presidents either but time off work and buying stuff.
As to Memorial Day, it is for no other purpose than to take time from our normal pursuits to commemorate those who gave their lives in the armed forces of this country that we might have the freedom to go about those pursuits. It's not for the dead per se -- the church provides that with All Saints Day on 1 November, and other religions have similar observances for the dead -- and certainly not to provide a three day kick off for Summer.
The VFW noted in its Memorial Day statement of 2002: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day." Efforts continue to return Memorial Day to its original date of observance, but we can return the observance itself to what it is, as General Logan said, to commemorate those who have died defending their country, and to aid and assist those whom they have left among us.
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