Events

When Memorial Day was more than just a 3-day weekend

Detroit’s Memorial Day parade in 1920 was led by four Civil War veterans (holding flags). From left, John L. Lewis, Samuel B. Dixon, H.S. Denal and W. T. Baer.

Memorial Day has become a transitional period between spring and summer, an extra day of rest, its original purpose lost in a swirl of picnics and appliance sales; of flower bed plantings and weekend getaways. Like many other traditions, Memorial Day  has been neutered for the convenience of a three-day weekend.

But it hasn’t always been so. Memorial Day had its beginnings shortly after the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day to place flowers on the graves of those who had given their lives in America’s bloodiest war.

The true origins of this custom are shrouded in history, but one version credits Southern women who began decorating graves in 1865. The ceremony spread to villages in both North and South and several towns claim to have celebrated the first Memorial Day.

Newspaper clippings in the Detroit News archives suggest that the first memorial service for Union veterans was held April 12, 1862, on the first anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Credit for this day of tribute went to four Michigan women, Mrs. Marcia Stafford May and Josephine and Ella May, all of Kalamazoo, and Mrs. Sarah Nicholas Evans.

A contingent of sailors marches in the 1920 parade.

      According to the clippings, the group traveled to eastern Virginia, and on the morning of April 12 Mrs. May drove to the Arlington Heights Cemetery and scattered a large basket of wild flowers on the soldiers’ graves. Mrs. John A. Logan, wife of a Union general and founder of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), heard of the tribute and called it to her husband’s attention. Congress, however, awarded the distinction of the first Memorial Day to Waterloo, N.Y., where Union veterans decorated the graves of fallen comrades on May 5,1866.

In southern states women formed Ladies Memorial Associations to disinter soldiers from distant battlefields and rebury them with dignity in local cemeteries. These associations became the sponsors of Confederate Memorial Days, which vary in date according to the height of the local flower season — from April in the deep South to late May in Virginia.

In 1866, Congress enacted legislation creating national military cemeteries. That same year Gen. Logan of Illinois founded the GAR which grew into a politically powerful veterans association. Logan ordered all GAR posts to decorate the graves of Union soldiers on May 30, the optimum time for flowers in the North. His order read that the day was “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion.” That year 103 posts held Memorial Day services, a number that grew to 336 in 1869, and continued to increase annually.

Detroit’s first observance occurred May 30, 1868, but is often missed by historians because it was a hastily organized event of only three days’ notice. The ceremony took place in Elmwood Cemetery where attorney Theodore Romeyn addressed the crowds. Several national flags and a stuffed eagle formed the background near the stage, while a band from Fort Wayne provided military music.

In 1873, the state of New York made May 30 a legal holiday, and by 1891 every Northern state had followed suit.

Black veterans of World War I march down Woodward.

      Memorial Day was a solemn occasion. Some 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had died in the war. Observances at Arlington in 1868 established a model. More than 5,000 people gathered at the cemetery, where small flags decorated 15,000 soldiers graves. After patriotic speeches, the band played a dirge while a procession made up of orphans from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home passed by. At the tomb of the unknown soldiers, the column stood for prayers and hymns. Then to the booming of cannons the orphans placed flowers over all the graves.

Rancor between North and South remained high for years following the war. Most Southern states considered May 30 a Yankee holiday and kept separate Confederate memorial days. It wasn’t until 1874, that Congress officially declared Memorial Day a national holiday.

As memories of the war faded, parades replaced funereal processions. Commemorative speeches were replaced with lively celebrations. Dirges were replaced with spirited tunes such as “Rally Round the Flag” and “Dixie.”

One of the most famous of all Memorial Day speeches was delivered at Keene, N.H. by Union veteran Oliver Wendell Homes Jr. who said: “The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth, our hearts were touched by fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.”

Even though picnics and outings began to replace cemetery rites, not all Americans approved of the changes. When President Grover Cleveland, who had paid for a substitute soldier to avoid wartime service — a common practice at the time among the upper class — went fishing on Memorial Day, in 1888, he ignited a controversy that played a role in his defeat for re-election.

Children of the Gillies School throw flowers into the Detroit River to honor naval heroes.

      The custom of scattering flowers on the water to honor Navy heroes originated on the Detroit River in 1901 and quickly spread across the nation. Mrs. Samuel B. Dixon, whose husband served under Adm. David Porter in the Civil War, and Prof. James M. Mandeville, principal of Gillies School, are credited with creating the tradition.

The first cermony took place on board the USS Yantic on the Detroit River. At four bells (10 a.m.) Mayor William Maybury made an address followed by the recitation of “Heroes of the Sea”, a poem written by Mandeville. Then followed benediction and the strewing of flowers on the water while the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.”

Prof. Mandeville told The Detroit News in a 1925 interview, “I had to pay for those first flowers out of my own pocket. Of course, the florists didn’t understand the significance of the custom we were starting. But the idea was picked up by the newspapers almost immediately, and every Memorial Day since the florists have donated the flowers.”

By 1915, few Civil War veterans remained, and Memorial Day traditions seemed to be fading away. However in 1918, Theodore Roosevelt rekindled the spirit in Detroit as he was greeted by throngs of Detroiters in one of the greatest Memorial Day parades in the state’s history. According to a front page article in the Detroit News hundreds of thousands of Detroiters turned out. “It was both a pageant of hope and determination and a solemn living monument to those who had gone before.”

“Bowed and gray, lame and weary, the GAR marched by. The men in its pitiably thin ranks smiled at the cheers, and the tears that greeted that little company that in former years had swept down the same Woodward Avenue, many thousands strong”.

The American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars continued to foster the tradition of honoring and remembering the nation’s war dead after World Wars I and II.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt and hero of the Spanish-American War helped restore the traditions of Memorial Day when he led Detroit’s parade in 1918.

      In the 1950s Memorial Day parades in downtown drew crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 spectators. But by the early 1960s, interest waned as native Detroiters abandoned the city for the new suburbs. Cities like Dearborn, St.Clair Shores, and Wyandotte started their own ceremonies.

In 1968 Congress passed a law establishing Memorial Day as one of five Monday holidays, making it just another three-day weekend. This coupled with public debate over the Vietnam War added to the erosion of the holiday. “It was as if we were punishing our soldiers for a war over which they had no control,” a local veteran lamented.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of communism in the former Soviet Union, and especially the Perisan Gulf War in 1991, brought renewed pride in the military. Desert Storm veterans returned to a hero’s welcome and it seemed that Americans wanted to make up for the shabby treatment of Vietnam veterans.

In 1992, for the first time in 20 years, a Memorial Day Parade was held in Detroit. Sponsored by the Montford Pointe Detachment of the Marine Corps League, the parade honored military veterans and police and firefighters who gave their lives for country and community. Said Parade Commmittee Chairman Eugene Owens: “It’s been a long time since Detroit honored its veterans, so we decided it was time to do something about it.”

From the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf War, an estimated 1,140,000 Americans have died on military duty.

Detroit Police Chief Isaiah McKinnon, grand marshal of the 1995 Detroit Memorial Parade told The Detroit News: “The community should support active duty and fallen veterans. There are time honored traditions we, as a community, must adhere to. It’s important for us as a community, state and country to show the support for all the individuals who served, and especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”


Boy Scouts are laden with flowers meant to decorate the graves of veterans on Memorial Day in 1928.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News