“The Floral Tribute to the Nation’s Dead”

June 4, 1870

C. S. Reinhart

“The Floral Tribute to the Nation’s Dead”

Civil War, Remembrance; Holidays, Memorial Day; Wars, American Civil War; Women, Civil War;

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Artist Charles S. Reinhart illustrates families paying tribute to America’s war dead by decorating the graves of their loved ones who died in military service to their country.  Depicting primarily women as mourners, in both the foreground and background, emphasizes the loss of men in wartime.  Several communities claim to have begun the practice of Decoration Day, as it was originally called, but it probably developed spontaneously in various localities during or shortly after the Civil War.  A song published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping,” is dedicated “To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”  In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson named Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of the holiday since the town had consistently closed its businesses for the day and hosted a large celebration since 1866.

On May 5, 1868, Congress passed a resolution that proclaimed May 30 as Memorial Day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead.  It was sponsored by Congressman John Logan of Illinois, a former Union general who then commanded the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the leading Union veterans’ organization.  In his corresponding order to his fellow Union veterans, Logan declared that the day was set aside for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”  The annual observance would prevent future generations from saying that “we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”  Thus, backers of the first national Memorial Day rhetorically encouraged remembrance of the sacrifice made by the Union war dead.  Harper’s Weekly defined it as “the day designated for strewing with flowers the graves of the Union soldiers.”  Although this cartoon does not explicitly identify the affiliation of the war dead, the inscription on the stone marker (lower-left), “These Shall Not Have Died In Vain,” can only refer to the victorious Union servicemen.  It may also allude to the ongoing political struggle over Reconstruction.

On May 30, 1868, the first national Memorial Day was observed at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D. C.  The bodies of 20,000 Union servicemen and several hundred Confederate war-dead are buried there.  General Ulysses S. Grant, General Winfield S. Hancock, other dignitaries, and a crowd of 5000 listened to an address by Congressman James Garfield, a former Union general, sang hymns, and recited prayers.  The assembly then proceeded reverently to the grave of the Unknown Soldier where a memorial ceremony was held.  Finally, children from a local orphanage decorated the graves with wreaths and tiny American flags.  Harper’s Weekly reported that similar ceremonies were held across the country (while only giving examples from the North), with businesses in many of those communities closing for the observance.

The practice continued to spread over the next few decades and became an official holiday in many states.  The GAR, the primary promoter of the holiday, frowned upon picnics and other forms of public entertainment and worked to keep the day a solemn occasion.  Southern states recognized a different day (usually also in the spring) as Decoration Day for the Confederate war-dead.  After World War I, the national holiday officially became a memorial for those who died in all American wars or military engagements.  Over the years, it increasingly became a general Day of the Dead on which families placed flowers on the graves of all loved ones; publicly, though, the sacrifice of the deceased servicemen and women remained the central focus.  In 1971, Congress changed the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Floral Tribute to the Nation’s Dead”
July 14, 2024

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