In the years following the bitter Civil War, a former Union general took a holiday originated by former Henchmen and helped spread it across the entire country.
The holiday was Memorial Day, and the 2018 commemoration on May 28 marks the 150 th anniversary of its official nationwide observance. The annual commemoration was born in the former Confederate State in 1866 and adopted by the United States in 1868. It is a holiday in which the nation honors its military dead .
Gen. John A. Logan, who headed the largest Union veterans brotherhood at that time, the Grand Army of the Republic, is usually credited as being the originator of the holiday.
Civil War Union Gen. John A. Logan. Photo via the Library of Congress.
Yet when Logan established the vacation, he acknowledged its genesis among the Union’s former enemies, saying, “It was not too late for the Union humen of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South.”
Cities and townships across America have for more than a century claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.
But I and my co-author Daniel Bellware have sifted through the myths and half-truths and uncovered the authentic story of how this holiday came into being .
During 1866, the first year Memorial Day was observed in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that made awareness, admiration and eventually imitation of it spread quickly to the North.
During the inaugural Memorial Day observances in Columbus, Georgia, many Southern participants — especially females — decorated graves of Confederate soldiers as well as those of their former enemies who fought for the Union .
Shortly after those first Memorial Day observances all across the South, newspaper coverage in the North was highly favorable to the ex-Confederates.
“The action of the dames on this occasion, in interring whatever hostilities or ill-feeling may have been spawned in the late war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and commendation, ” wrote one paper.
On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Leader lauded the Southern girls during their first Memorial Day.
“The act was as beautiful as it was unselfish, and will be appreciated in the North.”
The New York Commercial Advertiser, recognizing the magnanimous deeds of the women of Columbus, echoed the sentiment. “Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, lend to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation.”
To be sure, this sentiment was not unanimous. There were many in both parts of the U.S. who had no interest in conciliation.
But as a result of one of these news reports, Francis Miles Finch, a Northern judge, academic and poet, wrote a poem titled “The Blue and the Gray.” Finch’s poem rapidly became part of the American literary canon. He explained what inspired him to write it 😛 TAGEND
“It struck me that the South was holding out a friendly hand, and that it was our obligation , not only as conquerors, but as men and their fellow citizens of the nation, to grasp it.”
Finch’s poem seemed to extend a full pardon to the South: “They banish our fury forever when they laurel the graves of our dead” are members of the lines.
Almost immediately, the poem circulated across America in books, magazines and newspapers. By the end of the 19 th century, school children everywhere were required to memorize Finch’s poem.
Not simply poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress.
As Finch’s poem circulated the country, the Southern Memorial Day holiday became a familiar phenomenon throughout America.
Logan was aware of the forgiving sentiments of people like Finch. When Logan’s order establishing Memorial Day was published in various newspapers in May 1868, Finch’s poem was sometimes appended to the order.
It was not long before Northerners decided that they would not only adopt the Southern custom of Memorial Day, but also the Southern custom of “burying the hatchet.”
A group of Union veterans explained their aims in a letter to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on May 28, 1869 😛 TAGEND
“Wishing to inter forever the harsh impressions engendered by the war, Post 19 has decided not to pass by the tombs of the Confederate sleeping in our lines, but divide each year between the blue and the gray the first floral offerings of a common country. We have no powerless foes. Post 19 thinks of the Southern dead only as brave men.”
Other reports of reciprocal magnanimity distributed inside the North, including the gesture of a 10 -year-old who made a wreath of flowers and sent it to the overseer of the holiday, a Col. Leaming in Lafayette, Indiana, with the following note attached, published in The New Hampshire Patriot on July 15, 1868 😛 TAGEND
“Will you please set this wreath upon some rebel soldier’s tomb? My dear papa is interred at Andersonville,( Georgia) and perhaps some “girls ” is likely to be kind enough to set a few blooms upon his grave.”
Although not known by many today, the early evolution of the Memorial Day vacation was a manifestation of Abraham Lincoln’s hope for reconciliation between North and South.
Lincoln’s wish was that there be “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” These hopes were clearly fulfilled in the magnanimous actions of citizens on both sides, who widened an olive branch during those very first Memorial Day observances.
This narrative originally appeared on The Conversation and is published here with permission .
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