Hey there, I’m Yvonne and you’re watching Color and Chill, the show that soothes your eyes, your ears, and your soul. In honor of the upcoming holiday, this episode of Facts to Relax will be exploring Memorial Day. We’ll talk about the history of the holiday, why it was created, and when, what it was first named because it wasn’t always called Memorial Day, and how we might celebrate the holiday best. I’ll give you a brief history of Arlington National Cemetery as well as the tradition of wearing red poppies to honor our fallen soldiers and we’ll even discuss a bit about the history of parades, which are an important part of the Memorial Day holiday. I’ve highlighted the topics we’ll learn about in the description below with time codes in case you want to skip around. Otherwise, just sit back and relax with me while I paint on the screen and share some of my newfound knowledge about Memorial Day. Please keep in mind that I do not claim to be an expert in any subject and will probably miss or mess up something. So, if you feel the need to correct anything in the comments, please let’s remember to be kind and respectful to each other. We’re all just trying our best here. So to get started now, let’s settle down into a comfy spot and take a deep breath in, and then let it out slowly again and we can begin.
Memorial Day is an American federal holiday that honors and celebrates soldiers who have died while serving in the military. Held on the last Monday of May, the date itself changes yearly. It’s commonly seen as marking the beginning of summer with many people using the extra day off to host or attend picnics, open their swimming pools, shop Memorial Day sales, and attend parades. It’s one of the most traveled weekends of the year with roughly 41.5 million Americans who have somewhere to go, someone to see, and some potato salad to eat.
Originally called Decoration Day, the holiday was established after the Civil War to honor both Union and Confederate soldiers who’d died during the war. Approximately 620,000 soldiers on both sides died during the Civil War. This number of lives lost was so enormously high that the first national cemeteries, dedicated graveyards in which to bury fallen soldiers, had to be created. The Civil War ended in 1865 and some records show that the first Memorial Day commemoration was organized by a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month later. The city of Waterloo, New York first hosted an annual Decoration Day on May 5, 1866 where businesses closed and residents spent the day decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags. The federal government later declared Waterloo’s celebration as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Regardless of the origins, within a few years, a tradition of springtime tributes to fallen soldiers began to be a normal practice, with people putting flowers on graves and reciting prayers. This springtime tradition may have been chosen because that’s when flowers have begun blooming, allowing for them to be used to decorate graves in a time before the magic of florists made every day a fresh flower day.
The original title “Decoration Day,” was given by General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans. On May 5, 1868, he called for a day of remembrance on the upcoming May 30th, saying “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” He specifically chose May 30th for Decoration Day since it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. A few weeks later, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to a crowd of 5,000 war widows, orphans, and more, who then proceeded to decorate the thousands of graves of Civil War soldiers at the cemetery.
Before we go any further, I want to speak a little bit about the Arlington National Cemetery since it’s a very important part of honoring American soldiers and also a kind of juicy story. To start, the land that the cemetery is on was acquired in 1802 by 21-year-old George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of President George Washington, as part of his inheritance when his father died. Custis began constructing a mansion on the estate which he named “Arlington House” after the village Arlington, in Gloucestershire, England, from which his family came. He intended to use to use the mansion as somewhat of a living memorial to honor George Washington though I’m not sure if it ever was actually used in that manner. The house itself overlooked the growing city which would eventually become Washington D.C. Now, Custis had a daughter named Mary Anna, who ended up marrying one of her distant cousins who would become famed Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Maybe you’ve heard of him? The couple moved into Arlington House with Mary Anna’s parents after their wedding, and they lived there for the next thirty years. In an ironic turn of events, however, on May 24, 1861, Union troops seized the Arlington House while Lee was off leading the opposing side. To further add insult to injury, Congress soon enacted legislation imposing a property tax on all lands in “insurrectionary” areas of the U.S. and they had to be paid in person. Unfortunately, Mary Anna, who was afflicted with severe rheumatoid arthritis and living behind Confederate lines, was unable to pay the tax in person and though she attempted to send a representative to pay the tax on her behalf, the government quickly swooped in and seized the entire Arlington Estate, auctioning it off a few months later and the U.S. Government won the property for a price of $26,700, which is equal to about $448,000 in modern day currency. I’m not really sure how that all worked…did the government pay themselves for the property if they’d seized it? I don’t know but anyways, by early 1864, military cemeteries in Washington D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia were filling up quickly due to the high death toll of the Civil War and they needed somewhere else to start burying the fallen soldiers and so, it was proposed, that they use 200 of the 639 acres of the Arlington Estate as burial grounds. Quickly, the Arlington National Cemetery began to fill up, and as a strategically war-planned punishment to former resident Robert E. Lee for fighting on the Confederate side, particular care was made to be sure a large number of soldiers were buried close enough to the house in order to render it unlivable, and thereby preventing Lee from ever being able to occupy the house again, though, he apparently made no attempt to visit or live in Arlington after the war so maybe it didn’t hurt his feelings as much as they hoped it would. At the same time, the government set aside a certain amount of land on the estate to be used as a model community for emancipated, freed, and fugitive slaves. Called the “Freedman’s Village,” it included farmland, houses, a hospital, a school, and a mess hall. Though that might sound mighty kind of the United States government to set this up, we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion quite yet. You see, the village was actually in response to the flood of former slaves entering D.C. after the war ended, looking for work and shelter and quite frankly, being way too much in white Americans’ space for them to feel comfortable. Don’t forget that President Abraham Lincoln was actually pushing for colonization of former slaves-he proposed that they should be sent back to Africa or to Central America where they could form their own societies, allowing whites and blacks to live separately from each other. Freedman’s Village was to serve as a model example of what this form of colonization could look like. Overwhelmed, and perhaps as a final screw you to General Lee and the Confederacy, the powers that be at the time decided that the Arlington Estate would be the perfect spot to house 100 former slaves, roughly a half a mile south of the Arlington mansion. The plan was for the Village to be a temporary living space for the residents, where they would receive a basic education and a trade before leaving to find work elsewhere. However, the Village actually ended up being a semi-permanent settlement for many residents, and that’s when the government’s promptly generosity ran out. Property rent was instated and became a hot button issue between the tenants and the government and eventually the government closed down Freedman’s Village in the year 1900. All that to say that near the soldiers buried in the cemetery lay, to this day, nearly 4,000 former slaves as well, with headstones that simply read “citizen” or “civilian” which on one hand is like “what you couldn’t be bothered to put their names on the graves even though you definitely knew who they were because they literally lived here?” but on the other hand, slaves weren’t even considered citizens until 1866 so the meaning of that word on their headstones was somewhat profound in a way.
Now, the fight for the property wasn’t quite over yet. In 1874, Lee’s oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee filed a lawsuit against the US government to regain the property, arguing that the estate had been illegally confiscated during the war and eventually the case was settled with the federal government purchasing the property from Custis Lee for $150,000, which is more than $4 million in today’s money. This was an ideal ending for all since Custis Lee was much more interested in the money than actual ownership of the estate, and the US government was probably not at all interested in having to exhume and move the 17,000 bodies that had already been buried there. So yeah, it all pretty much worked itself out in the end.
In 1925, the government began to restore the Arlington House and the Department of the Army began managing more than half of the property, as Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery now hosts the graves of over 400,000 men and women, the only national cemetery that holds servicemembers from every war since the Revolutionary War as soldiers from that war and the War of 1812 were moved to Arlington from other cemeteries. Now, on every Memorial Day weekend since 1948, troops in the 3rd US Infantry Regiment place small American flags, exactly one foot in front of the grave marker and perfectly centered, on every American soldier’s grave. Additionally, the cemetery houses roughly 5,000 unknown soldiers and a special wreath laying ceremony is performed by the president or vice-president of the United States on each Memorial Day to honor the nameless soldiers who died in battle.
Anyways, now we can get back to Decoration Day…
So, by 1890, each northern state had adopted a celebration of Decoration Day and had made it an official state holiday. However, the southern states chose to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I. To put it simply, many southerners didn’t want to celebrate soldiers from the Union army who they saw as enemies. Most of the southern states chose instead to celebrate fallen Confederate soldiers on different days throughout the year, something that some southern states still continue to do to this day.
But World War I changed everything. Before that the Civil War was the only war that most people celebrated on Decoration Day but now, in World War I, the northern and southern states both had soldiers dying, side by side, for the same cause, and so the entire country, north and south, began to honor soldiers lost in both wars on Memorial Day. Now we use the holiday to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars all the way back to the Revolutionary War or while serving in the military at any point in our history. Essentially, it’s a day to reflect upon the sacrifices made in order to protect and promote the entire United States’ democracy and freedoms.
Speaking of World War I, it became a custom at the time for people to pin a red poppy to their shirts to honor soldiers in response a 1915 poem written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was serving as a brigade surgeon for the Allied artillery unit, after he spotted a cluster of bright red poppies in Flanders Field in Belgium, contrasting with the land around the flowers that had been desiccated shortly before in the Second Battle of Ypres. In his poem, he channeled the voice of fallen soldiers buried under the poppies, and it inspired people in Allied Nations the world over to honor the memories of the soldiers who died in the Great War by wearing poppies. Though European countries and Canada wear their poppies on November 11 for Remembrance or Armistice Day, in the United States, poppies are worn on Memorial Day instead. So if you see someone walking around with a red flower pinned to their shirt, you’ll know why.
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which effectively changed Decoration Day from being held on May 30th to on the last Monday in May. This allows for a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971 and at the same time they changed the name from Decoration Day to Memorial Day, though you may still hear the former name being used at times.
The meaning of Memorial Day is easy to overlook in modern times, when few battles are performed on American soil and the average number of soldiers dying while in service has drastically dropped, making it easy to distance ourselves from the horrors of war. And honestly, chronically overworked Americans are mostly just happy for an extra day to kick off the beginning of summer with friends and family, but it’s important to remember that the true point of the holiday is to honor soldiers who have given their lives for our country and freedom. There are some suggested etiquette tips for the holiday that I’ll share with you.
- Remember the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Though it’s perfectly suitable to be grateful to the troops at all times, Memorial Day is about soldiers that have died, not the ones who are currently serving or who have retired from service.
- Try to resist the urge to wish anyone a “Happy Memorial Day.” Again, it’s easy to forget that this is meant to be a somber remembrance of those who’ve died for the country and is not a particularly joyful holiday but we should try. Though not everyone would be offended if you wish them a happy Memorial Day, someone who’s lost a friend or family member to war or who’s well-versed in military holidays may not appreciate it.
- Don’t forget the importance of the day. In between bites of potato salad, try to take a moment to honor the service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so that you could have the freedom to choose whether or not to add raisins to that potato salad. In fact, in 2000, Congress signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act that encouraged all citizens to pause at 3 p.m., in their local time, each Memorial Day and take a moment to reflect on the lives lost and honor their memories. Major league baseball games usually stop for the Moment of Remembrance at this time and Amtrak engineers have taken up the practice of sounding their horns in unison as well.
Before we close out this episode about Memorial Day, let’s just talk a tiny bit about Memorial Day parades. I suppose the history of parades could warrant its own episodes of Facts to Relax so I’ll try to be concise here and save the general overview for another day. The earliest reference to a parade is from cave paintings approximately 10,000 years old, which show prehistoric men triumphantly carrying game they’d hunted and killed. As modern societies evolved from prehistoric times, religious and military processions occurred as early as 3000 BC. Nowadays, though military and religious groups may participate in parades they’re not usually the focus of the events with marching bands, little league teams, and local groups joining in the fun. Though there are huge parades that can be seen on TV on major holidays, there are also usually small town parades that can be enjoyed in person. Since Memorial Day is usually the first parade of the year, breaking from the cold, winter weather, and possibly being the first time in months seeing friends and neighbors outside, Memorial day parades may inadvertently be more joyful than the day should warrant but it’s hard not to be happy when a man dressed as a cow riding on a hay bale float next to the local homecoming queen is tossing tootsie rolls at you, so it’s pretty understandable if you mess that up. No judgement here!
As we close out tonight’s episode of Facts to Relax, I’d like to share the poem, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae that inspired the wearing of red poppies that I talked about.
Before that though,I invite you to leave a comment below letting me know if there’s any particular topic you’d like me to research for future shows and don’t forget to subscribe and come back and color and chill with me again.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
❁❁ SOURCES & RESOURCES ❁❁