The first Memorial Day—then called Decoration Day—was held on May 31, 1869, to dedicate the new Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. When the ceremonies were concluded, the New York Times declared the day a “conspicuous failure.” The age was a “material” one, the paper editorialized sadly, for which “sentiment” was too “fleeting” to support a “solemn festival.” But the deeper problem was that the first Memorial Day was really, as it was more accurately described by the Baltimore Sun, Union Memorial Day. Although President Grant had said “Let us have peace” in officially proclaiming a national day to commemorate all who had been killed in the Civil War, the Grand Army of the Republic flatly refused to place floral decorations on the graves of the Confederate dead. (The graves of “colored soldiers” were decorated after the dedication exercises at Cypress Hills had closed.)
For several years, as a consequence, Memorial Day was “an appeal to patriotism of one section at the expense of the pride and feeling of the other section,” the Times observed. It was not truly a day to remember the “patriot dead,” but a triumphalist jamboree, a “memorial of the triumph of Northern loyalty over Southern rebellion.”
Before long, accordingly, the South began to hold separate Memorial Day services a month earlier than the North. On the Confederate Memorial Day on April 26, 1875,
Nathan G. Evans Clement A. Evans, a former brigadier general in the Army of Northern Virginia, told the crowd that had gathered in Augusta, Ga., to lay the cornerstones of a Confederate monument that, when constructed, the monument would
For a long time, their call went unheeded. Jefferson Davis did not help the cause of national reconciliation when he wrote three years later that Confederate Memorial Day “commemorate[s] men who died in a defensive war” and whose “heroism derives its lustre from the justice of the cause in which it was displayed. . . .” Six weeks later, as if replying directly to Davis, William T. Sherman told the large crowd gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, including President Hayes, that “all over this broad land this memorial day has been dedicated to the beautiful custom of decorating with earth’s fairest and freshest flowers the graves of the patriot men who died that we might possess in peace a united country and a Government worth having.” And patriots, in the idiom of 1878, did not include the Southern dead. “Our forefathers are called patriots,” acknowledged the Atlanta Constitution the next year, “and our fathers are called rebels.”
Perhaps because of revanchist opinions like Davis’s—or the suspicion of them—Memorial Day remained a sectional observance even when it was legally declared a national holiday in 1885. By the turn of the century, however, hearts had begun to change at last. In the Spanish-American War, Northern and Southern soldiers had come under fire together again. Albert D. Shaw, the Grand Army of the Republic’s commander-in-chief, said publicly that the last Sunday in May should henceforth commemorate all American soldiers who had died in battle. “On this occasion there could be tributes alike to the fallen men of the confederacy, the union army, and the brave soldiers who died in the war with Spain,” he said.
Shaw was not speaking for himself alone. On Memorial Day 1900, Confederate and Union veterans joined together to unveil a monument on the Antietam battlefield. “I am glad to meet, on this memorable field, the followers of Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet with the followers of Grant and Sherman and Sheridan, greeting each other with affection and respect,” said President McKinley, who had himself fought for the Union at Antietam. Although he admitted that he was glad that “we were kept together and the Union was saved,” he was also glad for Appomattox and the meeting there between Grant and Lee. “There must be comfort,” he mused, “in the fact that American soldiers never surrendered to any but American soldiers.”
From that day to this, Memorial Day has been a truly national holiday. Any differences between Americans are set aside in the grateful recognition that we are united by the best among us: American soldiers who have never surrendered—with God’s help, will never be forced to surrender—to any but American soldiers.