History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
Most Americans eagerly look forward to Memorial Day as the official start of the summer—the kick-off of a season of sun-filled vacations and workdays that are a little less hectic. But what is often overshadowed is the real reason why the country celebrates the holiday.
From its birth three years after the end of the Civil War, Memorial Day has been a day for the country to join together to remember the men and women who have fought and died to protect it. The very first Decoration Day, as the holiday was initially known, took place on May 30, 1868 at the behest of General John A. Logan, who was in charge of an organization for Union vets. Although it wouldn’t become an official federal holiday until 1971, the last Monday in May has remained an important day over the past century and a half for Americans to come together to remember those who have lost their lives while serving their country.
A Parade of Presidents at Arlington Cemetery
From the very first Decoration Day, Arlington National Cemetery has played a central role in the traditions around the holiday. In 1868, 5,000 people came together in front of the veranda of General Robert E. Lee’s former home in Arlington—appropriately draped in black for the occasion—where Congressman James A. Garfield delivered an address. Afterwards, the attendees collected flowers and flags and decorated the 20,000 graves of soldiers on the property that had become the country’s national cemetery.
“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue,” Garfield, a former Union General, said during that first celebration.
Every year, Arlington National Cemetery continues to hold an official ceremony on the holiday, and it has become tradition—although not a requirement—for the sitting president (or another government representative if he cannot make it) to attend the remembrance and lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
General Pershing’s Warning
In 1936, the country was slowly pulling itself out of the Great Depression, but the tensions blooming in Europe were palpable. That year, as this video news report shows, General John J. Pershing was invited to give the keynote speech at the Arlington Cemetery observance with President Roosevelt in attendance.
As the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe during World War I, Pershing knew the dangers of another global conflict. While he underscored the need for the country to commit itself to protecting liberty and justice, like the fallen soldiers they were honoring that day, Pershing also mused on the tragedy of war.
“Memorial Day, with all its beauty and its solemnity, gives us to wonder why humanity should be visited so frequently by the terrible scourge of war, with its enormous waste of human life and its tremendous destruction of property…even now, less than a score of years after the World War, armies and armaments are being rapidly multiplied until in many countries the burden seems wholly unbearable,” Pershing said.
A Nation Not So United
While the holiday initially began to remember all soldiers who died during the Civil War, the context and meaning of that conflict is quite different today. Despite the backlash against Confederate monuments and symbols, several states still hold a separate day of observation to remember the Confederate soldiers who died during the war.
Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina all recognize official days of remembrance for fallen Confederate soldiers, complete with statewide holidays. Each state, however, holds their celebration on a different day and under a different name. Several other southern states hold unofficial days of observance throughout the spring. Just over a century and half after the end of the war that divided the nation, the conflict over how to remember the men who died during that fight rages on.