If the last few generations of Americans understood the origin and meaning of Memorial Day, we might have avoided the trauma of division and corruption that now threatens the United States as never before. Memorial Day was founded on the biblical ideals of forgiveness and reconciliation shortly after America’s most divisive and bloody conflict, the Civil War, which extended from 1861 to 1865. That conflict cost at least 620,000 men, more casualties than all of America’s other wars combined—the two World Wars, the Korean and Vietnamese wars and the Middle East wars.
The United States was so mercilessly divided at the time of the Civil War that many thought reconciliation impossible. And yet, it began with humble and virtuous actions from the vanquished South, not the victorious North.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and was established to honor the dead and buried from the Civil War. The holiday’s origin dates back to April 25, 1866, when a former chaplain in the Confederate Army accompanied a group of women from Columbus, Mississippi, to Friendship Cemetery—the burial ground for about 1600 men who died in the Battle of Shiloh—to honor the dead with decorations of flowers. At that time, Columbus, like the rest of the South, was occupied by Union Army forces, and some townspeople were fearful of creating new animosity if the decorations would favor Confederate over Union graves.
The prayerful Columbus women had no such intention despite having heard about the Union’s cavalier burial treatment of Confederate army fatalities on Northern battlefields. Their equal decoration of the graves of both sides became a catalyst for a national reconciliation movement. The New York Herald editorialized: “The women of Columbus, Mississippi, have shown themselves impartial in their offerings to the memory of the dead … strew[ing] flowers alike on the graves of the Confederate and of the Union soldiers.”
A second claimant for originating Decoration Day took place on Belle Isle located in the James River in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy. On May 30, 1866, women placed bouquets on the graves of Union soldiers who were victims of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp located there.
Despite the war’s staggering death toll and the Confederates having inflicted far more casualties on the North than the Union did on the South, Abraham Lincoln expressed no blame or bitterness toward the Confederacy. Rather, in his Second Inaugural Address he held both sides—the North and the South—accountable for this most costly war. Memorial Day might be our most important holiday today because it reminds us that the country paid more in deaths to reunite the nation and correct the offense of slavery than it paid for all the other causes for which the nation fought in its ensuing history.
While Memorial Day, which became the holiday name of Decoration Day, came to be known as a day of commemoration to honor those lost while fighting in the Civil War, its observance was not at all consistent for many years. And when the United States became embroiled in World War I and World War II, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in subsequent wars.
Memorial Day finally became a national federal holiday in 1968 with Congress passing the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, enacted to create a three-day holiday weekend for federal employees and establishing the date of the annual celebration for Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The Act also combined Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays into Presidents’ Day and made Columbus Day a Monday holiday. Years later Martin Luther King Day would be celebrated on the third Monday in January.
Americans were unique in sacrificing their treasure and lives to found the first country in history establishing that all people have natural rights that come from God rather than from rulers or government. The Declaration of Independence affirmed the equality of all people and that they were endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And just because it took nearly 200 years for that entire vision to be fully realized, it does not diminish the founding based on those ideals. Thus, when Americans sacrificed their lives in military service, we should remember that it was not just to defend the United States, but it was also to uphold the natural rights and moral values associated with the nation’s founding that inspire others worldwide.
There were times and places in human history when there were nation states of cultural achievement, virtue, and efflorescence, such as in Periclean Athens, in the Florence of the Medicis, and in the England of Elizabeth and Shakespeare. But none were founded the way America was—that is by a collection of the nation’s most learned statesmen, well-versed in classics of law, political philosophy, and biblical understanding, who prayerfully approached drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Constitution provided a charter for an unprecedented arrangement of governmental institutions designed to mitigate corruption and abuse of power while also protecting the citizens’ unalienable God-given rights. The Bill of Rights, an integral part of the Constitution, enabled people living in America to rise to levels closer to the divine image in which all were created than they would have under any government previously conceived.
When the Puritans departed England in 1630 for the New World, under the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company and sponsorship from the British Crown, they had no idea what independence and the future of the American government would look like a century and a half later. Their leader and future governor, John Winthrop, had a vision taken from Scripture asserting that they were to be an example for the rest of the world in rightful living (Matthew 5:14-16). Upon leaving England and again before arriving in Massachusetts aboard the ship Arabella—a name of Latin origin meaning “yielding to prayer”—Winthrop declared to his people their purpose quite clearly: “We shall be as a ‘City upon a Hill,’ the eyes of all people are upon us.”
The governing guidelines for that “City” would in part turn out to be the U.S. Constitution, which became one of America’s most important exports to the world. Writing about the benefits of the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson stated, “We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind.” In only two centuries since that time, almost every nation has come to accept the need and value of having a constitution, regardless of differences in culture and history. Many sought to learn from the United States because of the captivating ideals at the center of the world’s longest-surviving constitution.
In sum, Memorial Day means more than remembering and honoring those who died in military service to the country. It means connecting with a heritage that began with a courageous and faithful group of founders, who risked everything for the birth of freedom and the establishment of America as a “city on a hill.” And it’s particularly appropriate in these trying times to remember that it was the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation that renewed America after the divisive period of the Civil War when the nation suffered its greatest wartime destruction and loss of life.
Memorial Day, rightly understood, provides inspiration and depth to rediscover and restore the ideals that made America great.