Like regional food, holidays have local traditions that often overshadow any national or formal standards. Where I live in Southern California, Civil War battlefields are few and far between. Memorial Day is celebrated as the beginning of summer more than a federal holiday to commemorate men and women who have fallen in our nation’s armed service.
Presidio Cemetery, San Francisco (Library of Congress Photo)
I am chagrined to admit that decades of public school didn’t leave me with much education about this very patriotic holiday. I didn’t know that Memorial Day honors all men and women who died in our nations’s armed service, not necessarily all who served. Veterans Day, November 11, is the official U.S. holiday that honors all who served in the armed forces.
Maybe I’m not to blame for conflating Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Lacking many graves of those fallen in battle, our local cemeteries seem to have expanded the original meaning of these patriotic holidays to include not only those who died while serving in the United States Armed Service, but those who served, as well.
Many Memorial Day events in Southern California honor veterans of the Civil War, like the Memorial Day Weekend Remembrance at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery sponsored by the West Adams Heritage Association. I visited Rosedale a few years ago. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles, founded in 1884, and is the final resting place of many Civil War veterans.
In Pasadena, California, Mountain View Cemetery holds its 93rd Annual Memorial Day Commemoration to honor “all veterans.” The ceremony is followed by a guided tour of “the refurbished Civil War plot and other areas of notable buried in the cemetery.” Which begs the question, “Who qualifies as a “notable?”
California is a large state, but even in the Central Valley Memorial Day has taken on an all-inclusive meaning. Robin Chapman writes about her own Decoration Day commemoration on her wonderful California blog Robin Chapman News.
Memorial Day has its roots in Decoration Day, the last Monday of May, when the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War were decorated with flowers in honor of their sacrifice. David W. Blight, Professor of American History at Yale writes in “The First Decoration Day”:
At the end of the Civil War the dead were everywhere, some in half buried coffins and some visible only as unidentified bones strewn on the killing fields of Virginia or Georgia. Americans, north and south, faced an enormous spiritual and logistical challenge of memorialization. The dead were visible by their massive absence. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in the war. American deaths in all other wars combined through the Korean conflict totaled 606,000. If the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, 4 million names would be on the Vietnam Memorial. The most immediate legacy of the Civil War was its slaughter and how remember it.
Dr. Blight notes that the first and largest commemoration of the Civil War took place on May 21, 1865. Thousands of black residents of Charleston, South Carolina held a massive parade and procession after giving proper burial to the Union dead who had been held at an outdoor prison in the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.
Other cities and events also claim the distinction of the “first Decoration Day,” but it wasn’t until May 5, 1868 that the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic named Decoration Day as an annual observance. Popularly known as “Memorial Day,” the federal holiday became official in 1966.
It’s interesting to read how the holiday was celebrated historically in the South, at the major battlefields, and in the Northern States, and how it’s celebrated today. And although Californians might not be absolutely correct in expanding Memorial Day commemorations to include veterans as well as those who died in the Armed Services, it would seem doesn’t seem like a bad idea to honor our nation’s military men and women every chance we get.