Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years. Many Americans today have forgotten the meaning and the traditions of Memorial Day. People often confuse the day with Veterans Day (November 11th), and make mention of their sacrifice. Still others think the day is to honor all of the dead. Sadly, many people just think of the day as another long three-day weekend for family reunions, out of town travel, barbecues and backyard fun. However, the day is steeped in tradition and its solemn beginnings are accredited to the women of the South.
The story begins in Georgia. It is a matter of record that Mrs. Charles Williams of Columbus, Georgia, instituted the custom of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers. She was a remarkable woman, the daughter of Major John Howard, of Milledgeville, Georgia. She married Major C.J. Williams on his return from the Mexican-American War. Later, during the War For Southern Independence (1861-1865), Major Williams served as Colonel of the First Georgia Regiment of The Army of Northern Virginia. He died of disease in 1862 and was buried in Columbus.
Mrs. Williams and her daughter visited his grave every day and often comforted themselves by wreathing it with flowers. While mother sat abstractedly thinkng of her lost loved one, her daughter would pluck weeds from the unmarked Confederate soldiers' graves near her fathers, and cover them with flowers, calling them "her soldier's graves." After a short time, death tragically summoned the little girl and Mrs. Williams took charge of these unknown graves for her daughter's sake. As she cared for these graves, the thought of the thousands of patriots who gave their lives for the Southern Cause, and who were buried in unknown graves, far from home and kindred came to her. She then proposed an idea of having one day set aside every year to remember the war dead. That day was the 26th of April, for all practical purposed the last day of the war.
It was on April 26th that Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Major General W.T. Sherman near Durham, North Carolina. Robert E. Lee had already surrendered to Grant on April 9th and Johnston's surrender, for the most part, ended the war. However, there were other surrenders in other theaters such as on May 4th General Richard Taylor (son of Zachary Taylor, 12th President of the United States) surrendered at Citronelle, Alabama, on June 2nd General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the Confederate Department of the Trans Mississippi to Major General Canby, and on June 23rd General Stand Watie surrendered Cherokee forces in Oklahoma.
Mrs. Williams used her influence and wrote to newspapers and the numerous Southern Aid Societies across the former Confederacy, and urged them to petition their legislatures to make the day an official day of mourning. In those days, women did not have the right to vote, but they had great influence, and they worked together. Her message was
"We beg the assistance of the press and the ladies throughout the South to aid us in the effort to set apart a certain day to be observed from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and to be handed down through time as a religious custom of the South, to wreath the graves of our martyred dead with flowers, and we propose the 26th day of April as the day."
Their plan worked. In 1866, the Legislature of Georgia set apart the 26th day of April as a legal holiday in obedience to her request. The other states that followed were Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Different days were set as May 10th in South Carolina, June 3rd (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Lousiana and Tennessee, and January 19th in Texas (Robert E. Lee's birthday). Mrs. Williams lived long enough to see her plan adopted all over the South. She died April 15, 1874, and was buried with military honors.
The idea spread over the entire United States and was celebrated quite separately. On the Union side, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th, as an order issued by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was the powerful veterans' organization of former union soldiers. The organization was powerful not only in numbers, but in politics as well. To be elected to any office, the GAR vote, or "soldiers' vote," was critical. The first state to recognize May 30th as a holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was adopted by most all northern states.
As time marched on the country slowly grew back together. More wars were fought too. Finally, after the Spanish American War and World War I, May 30th was set aside by the entire country to honor their war dead. However, things began to change and by 1971, Congress passed the National Holiday Act to ensure a three-day weekend for federal holidays.
It is no wonder that Memorial Day has almost evolved into just another long weekend, instead of a special single day of remembrance. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored and many people do not know proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold a Memorial Day parade, many have not had one in decades. There is a movement to help reeducate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, The National Moment of Remembrance. This was an act passed in 2000, which asked that at 3:00 p.m. local time, for all Americans "To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a 'moment of remembrance and respect' for our war dead."
Although the National Moment of Remembrance is considered as a right step to help restore the meaning of the day, what may be needed is the return to the original day of observance. That is one day, set aside out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect, and honor those who have given their lives, and their all for their country. It is not a day for veterans or the living. That is observed on Veterans Day in November. However it is a day to remember our war dead, those who paid for our liberties with their lives.