Memorial Day – A Time To Remember In The North And South
Today we call it Memorial Day. Not that many years ago we called it Decoration Day. It was that Monday in May when we visited the cemeteries that were important to us – cleaned up the grave sites of relatives and forebears – and left flowers as a remembrance.
After the visit to the cemetery, we would gather at the home of one relative or another for a family gathering of greater or lesser size. It was a special time.
A Time To Do Nothing
Over the years, Memorial Day has become less and less a day of decoration and more of a long weekend at the beginning of summer. Most of the swimming pools open on Memorial Day. Auto races are run. The summer movie season begins in earnest. And a lot of people simply have a nice time doing nothing all that special.
In one sense the people who organized the original Memorial Day observances would be pleased by all of this. It is a fine thing to live in a country where people can spend a long weekend doing whatever they feel like doing.
But in another sense they would be disappointed that so many of us have forgotten what the holiday is all about. It is about remembering the people who have died in our country’s military service.
Civil War Origins
Memorial Day came out of the American Civil War. It was a war like no other in its devastation and destructiveness. When it was over in 1865, our nation had seen more than 600 thousand soldiers killed and another million or more wounded and disabled. It remains – the deadliest war in our history.
In the years following the war, groups of people began to gather informally at local cemeteries at various times to remember the people who died. In 1868, General John Logan the National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union Army Veterans organization, established May 30 as a national “Decoration Day.” In 1971, the date was officially changed to the last Monday in May. Over the years the holiday was extended to the remembrance of all of our veterans who died in the service of our country, and in time, to departed family and friends as well.
South Had Its Own Memorial Day(s)
While veterans groups in the North were remembering their fallen friends on Memorial Day, veterans groups in the South were doing the same thing but on their own terms. The holiday was observed in some southern states as early as April and in other states as late as June. By 1916, ten southern states were observing the holiday on the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis- which of course all of us know is June 3.
Importantly, it was being observed here – in the heart of Ohio – as well as across the South. Ohio was a strong pro-Union state and provided immense numbers of men and supplies to the Union cause-prompting President Lincoln at one point to say “Ohio has saved the Union!”
Camp Chase Remembers
Yet, in this state of many Unionists, there is a Confederate Memorial Day as well. Camp Chase was a Union Army mobilization center on the west side of the city. Over the course of the Civil War, more than 10,000 Confederate prisoners were brought there. 2260 of them are still buried there.
Each year, a Confederate Memorial Day service is held to remember them. This year on June 10 at 3PM a different sort of Memorial Day will be held for the 117th time.
For many Americans – Memorial Day still casts a very long shadow indeed.
Ed Lentz is a WOSU Commentator and Central Ohio historical consultant.