Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is May 29, 2023. These days we remember the members of the armed forces who have died by decorating their graves, attending colorful parades with marching bands and a multitude of flags, and celebrating the national holiday. The general ambiance of the day is often solemn, but also upbeat.
A deep dive into the history of Memorial Day via a multitude of internet sources reminds us that origins of this holiday are the result of four horrific years in United States history:
- Families were divided by choosing different sides.
- Communities were decimated.
- 620,000 people died equalling the combined American deaths in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
These details related to the American Civil War are worth contemplating as we enjoy the parades, speeches, and cookouts on Monday.
Let’s return to the origins of Memorial Day for they speak well of many folks in the post Civil War era. It began as an organic movement with groups, towns, and villages recognizing their communities’ armed service members whom did not return from the battles. In October of 1864, several women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania decorated the graves of the community’s fallen. The next year, many more townspeople joined them in commemoration.
In May of 1865, a group of freed slaves in Charleston, North Carolina held a ceremony to honor the Union soldiers buried at a local racetrack. Columbus, Mississippi honored the dead of both sides of the Civil War in 1866.
John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (veterans of the Union Army) called for May 30th in 1868 to be a national day to honor fallen comrades saying, “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.”
After WW I, the designated Decoration Day became know as Memorial Day to honor all who had died for their country. In 1971, the United States Congress declared the last Monday in May as the national holiday.
In 2023, 158 years after the end of the Civil War, this period in our history seems like ancient history. However, many Americans can trace family history back to these events through genealogical searches and family oral histories. For example, my grandmother’s uncles were two of the 13,000 Union prisoners who died at Andersonville Military Prison in Georgia. I love to read history so this little factoid is fascinating to me. I wonder what the long range effects of the loss of these two men were on their family and community, realizing that this impact was magnified across the country with the Civil War’s 620,000 losses.
If you are interested in searching into your family’s connection to the American Civil War, you might explore these resources:
- Ancestry.com has a section entitled Search Civil War (https://www.ancestry.com/cs/civilwarrecords). You may be able to get a free trial to do your search.
- FamilySearch also has a section on Civil War soldiers (https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/1910717).
- Online Civil War Indexes (https://www.militaryindexes.com/civilwar/) pulls together all sorts of sites for your research.
- How to Trace a Civil War Veteran Using Military Service the National Archives. (https://www.goldenarrowresearch.com/civil-war-service-records/).
- Try searching for a specific database. I looked up Andersonville Prison and found this document (https://ia800905.us.archive.org/33/items/listofunionsoldi00atwa/listofunionsoldi00atwa.pdf):
Enjoy Memorial Day this coming Monday, and take time to reflect on members of the armed forces who gave their lives in the service of their country, their families and their loss, the country’s loss in terms of economic growth and innovative thinking, and the conditions, attitudes, actions that led to the conflicts that have taken so many lives.
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