In the years following the bitter Civil War, a former Union general took a vacation originally from former Confederates and helped spread it across the country.
The holiday was Memorial Day, an annual commemoration originating in the former Confederate States in 1866 and adopted by the United States in 1868. It is a holiday during which the nation honors its military dead.
Yet when General Logan established the holiday, he acknowledged its genesis among the Union’s former enemies, saying, “It was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example people from the South.”
I am a researcher who has written – with co-author Daniel Bellware – a memorial day history. For over a century, cities and towns across America have claimed to be the birthplace of the holiday, but we’ve sifted through the myths and half-truths and uncovered the true story of how the party was born. this party.
Generous deeds paid off
During 1866, the first year of this annual celebration in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that caused awareness, admiration and ultimately imitation of it to spread rapidly to the North. .
During the inaugural Memorial Day celebrations that were designed in Columbus, Georgiamany Southern participants—particularly women—decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers as well as, unexpectedly, those of their former enemies who fought for the Union.
Shortly after these first Memorial Day celebrations throughout the South, Northern newspaper coverage was overwhelmingly supportive of ex-Confederates.
“The action of the ladies on this occasion, in burying any animosities or resentments which may have been engendered in the last war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and congratulations.” write an article.
On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Chef praised Southern Women on their first Memorial Day.
“The act was as beautiful as it was selfless, and will be appreciated in the North.”
The New York Commercial Advertiser, acknowledging the magnanimous acts of the women of Columbus, Georgia, echoed that sentiment. “May this incident, however touching and beautiful, teach our authorities in Washington a lesson in conciliation.”
power of a poem
Admittedly, this feeling was not unanimous. There were many in both parts of the United States who had no interest in conciliation.
But following one of these reports, Francis Miles Finchnorthern judge, scholar and poet, wrote a poem titled “blue and gray.” Finch’s poem quickly became part of the American literary canon. He explained what inspired him to write it:
“It struck me that the South was stretching out a friendly hand, and that it was our duty, not only as conquerors, but as men and their fellow nation, to grasp it.”
Finch’s poem seemed to extend complete forgiveness to the South: “They banish our wrath forever when they lay the graves of our dead” was one of the lines.
Almost immediately, the poem circulated across America in books, magazines, and newspapers. By the end of the 19th century, schoolchildren around the world had to memorize Finch’s poem. The ubiquitous publication of Finch’s nursery rhyme meant that by the end of 1867, the Southern Memorial Day holiday was a familiar phenomenon throughout the newly reunited country.
General Logan was aware of the indulgent feelings of people like Finch. When Order of Logan Establishing Memorial Day was published in various newspapers in May 1868, Finch’s poem was sometimes appended to the order.
“Blue and Grey”
It wasn’t long before northerners decided that they would adopt not only the Southern custom of Memorial Day, but also the Southern custom of “burying the hatchet.” A group of Union veterans explained their intentions in a letter to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on May 28, 1869:
“Wanting to bury forever the harsh feelings engendered by the war, Post 19 decided not to go through the graves of the Confederates sleeping in our lines, but to share each year between blue and gray the first floral offerings of a common country. We have no powerless enemies. Post 19 considers the dead of the South only as brave men.
Other testimonies of reciprocal magnanimity circulated in the North, including the gesture of a 10-year-old child who make a flower crown and sent it to the party overseer, Colonel Leaming, at Lafayette, Indiana, with the following note attached, published in The New Hampshire Patriot on July 15, 1868:
“Would you please place this wreath on the grave of a rebel soldier? My dear daddy is buried in Andersonville, GA and maybe a little girl will be kind enough to put some flowers on his grave.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s wish that there be “wickedness to no one” and “charity to all” was visible in the magnanimous actions of participants on both sides, who held out an olive branch during the celebrations of the Memorial Day during those first three years.
Although unknown to many today, the early evolution of the Memorial Day holiday was a manifestation of Lincoln’s hope for reconciliation between North and South.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on May 25, 2018.