The Many Birthplaces of Memorial Day

  May 27, 2014

Yesterday was Memorial Day. Like many other Americans, my family and I spent this day of national remembrance at a local park. We made the short trip to historic Boalsburg. Those in the know will recognize that Memorial Day in Boalsburg, PA is no ordinary affair. It is a massive celebration. This was especially true this year, which marks the 150th Memorial Day celebrated in Boalsburg. Thousands of people from all over gathered to honor our veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice. What started as a time to decorate graves with flowers has now grown into a large festival, with celebratory events found at every corner of the township.

It was also a learning opportunity. Almost everyone knows about Pennsylvania’s vital role in the Civil War and the importance of Memorial Day in the region. As a Michigan native, what I didn’t know was that Boalsburg itself was the very birthplace of Memorial Day.

Or at least it claims to be. After doing some reading, it turns out nearly two dozen towns – both North and South – claim to be the source of Memorial Day. Some of these claims are more legitimate than others. Some areas, like Savannah, GA, cite actual newspaper articles with specific dates. Others, like Knoxville, TN, rely on reports written long after the original event. Some locations do not provide any source at all – just secondhand mentions that such a claim was made.

I’ve gathered up a list of the locations that do have verifiable sources for their claims. Due to the nature of historic evidence (which might include everything from journal entires to Presidential Proclamations), this list is surely incomplete. But even still, the large number of towns that believe this special day started on their doorstep is, to me, quite interesting.

Sourced claims of Memorial Day’s birthplace

Most of the data comes from the Center for Civil War Research. Other sources include the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Where possible, I linked to the actual township’s claim (via local website or newspaper).

Memorial Day vs Decoration Day

Memorial Day wasn’t always known by that name. Its original name, Decoration Day, was given by General John Logan of Illinois. Nearly all stories about the birth of either holiday are based on one or more individuals placing flowers upon soldiers’ graves. Despite its northern namesake, a North-South distinction appears in the maintenance of Decoration Day. In the North (and now nationally) the day is most often recognized as Memorial Day. But in the South, many locations still celebrate Decoration Day in some capacity (this is also true of some Northern states). Regardless of the name, both the North and the South claim to have started this tradition around the end of the Civil War.

However, many historians believe graves were being decorated during the war. Nella Sweet’s hymn Kneel Where our Loves Are Sleeping from 1867 is addressed to “The Ladies of the South who are decorating the graves of the Confederate dead.” Given that the hymn was written barely two years after the end of the Civil War, it is likely that Sweet was referring to an already established tradition. If you go back even further, you find that others had been doing this for centuries – and not just in America: there is evidence the practice first began in the Roman Empire.

Does it matter who started it?

In my view, absolutely not. This is being presented as a fun look at disputed history and bold claims. The true origins of Memorial Day may be forever disputed. I’m interested only in the geography of that dispute. The reason for the day is more important than the place of its origins. Because of this, I particularly like the disclaimer provided by the Center for Civil War Research, which states:

While the issue for many has been to determine, as definitively as may be, the true origin of the tradition, we feel it is more important to observe the power of the impulse to commemorate manifest among so many. We present here, hopefully without prejudice or favor, a survey of some of the early instances of the commemorative impulse — along with select references — that much later became the national holiday.

History’s Heroes

This isn’t just a story of dispute. The real story exists in highlighting those honored by this day, and those who made it their goal to remember them. More than 1.3 million Americans have died in wars, and the number of deceased veterans is higher still. But death is not the only theme of Memorial Day. While reading through the various sources and claims, a clear trend emerges: regardless of location, this national day of remembrance and recognition was largely started by women and minorities. In the case of Charleston, SC, former slaves were responsible for commemorating (and honorably reburying) fallen Union soldiers.

Whether as a means to remember lost loved ones or to pay respects to those who gave their lives to defend ours, Memorial Day has a special place in American history. More importantly, it was a day born out of honor and commemoration – and no town can claim ownership of that.

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Josh is a PhD candidate at Penn State researching UI/UX design for interactive maps and data visualization. He currently works at NASA's Earth Observatory.

Learn more or follow @jscarto on Twitter.

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