Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory — or backyard barbecues. To understand America’s "most confusing holiday," you’ve got to ponder why we get the day off in the first place.
Decoration Day, as it was once known, arose after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. This practice first received sanction in 1868 from General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, as a moment for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this effort, but by 1890 all Northern states had recognized the holiday.
This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just about sectional spite. The United States, lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history or ancient blood ties), had had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union offered proof that America was more than a mere idea.
“Before the War our patriotism was a firework, a salute, a serenade for holidays and summer evenings,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. “Now the deaths of thousands and the determination of millions of men and women show that it is real.”
James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, wrote in 1869: “Till after our Civil War, it never seemed to enter the head of any foreigner, especially of any Englishman, that an American had what could be called a country, except as a place to eat, sleep, and trade in. Then it seemed to strike them suddenly. ‘By Jove, you know, fellahs don’t fight like that for a shop-till!’”
The holiday overcame sectional tensions around World War I, when Southerners rejoined the fold and the day was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any U.S. war. Commemorating the fallen is one way that governments rebuild the morale of nations that have suffered great loss.
But memorials are tricky because the needs of the state, bereaved families and surviving veterans do not always coincide. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University historian John Bodnar describes the controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – between national leaders and patriotic citizens who wanted a grand monument to foster national unity and patriotism, and Vietnam veterans and bereaved families who wanted an expression of empathy for those who suffered and died. In the end, the memorial — with the names of the fallen etched into black granite walls — wound up symbolizing, in Bodnar’s words, “the human pain and sorrow of war rather than the valor and glory of warriors and nations.”
The annual Memorial Day holiday doesn’t elicit the same depth of emotional intensity as the planning of a national war memorial. But it has divided the public in another way: between those who chose to observe the holiday and those who saw it as a chance for leisure time. It’s likely that the latter group has always been larger than the former, suggest the historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran. And that gap is probably growing wider.
Rather than harangue about some presumed decline of patriotism in America, I’d suggest backyard barbecues are also fundamental to Memorial Day’s building of national morale. Yes, it is critical to remember the fallen. But, as the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan argued, forgetting past horrors is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” That, my fellow Americans, is where the hot dogs come in.
Gregory Rodriguez is founder and publisher of Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University.