National Holiday: Remember the ‘real’ Memorial Day

MONDAY, MAY 28: It’s as American as apple pie: hometown parades, ceremonies for fallen soldiers and the smell of barbecues firing up across the country—it’s Memorial Day. The unofficial start of summer in America began, less than two centuries ago, as a solemn observance for the war that had consumed more lives than any other U.S. conflict. While memorial services still abound, the national holiday also means picnics, beaches, fireworks and, of course, travel, as Americans enjoy a three-day weekend.

Got a reflective moment today—and want to compare your viewpoint on America’s moral state of the union with a new nationwide study? Visit OurValues, where Dr. Wayne Baker reports on this new Gallup data.


The Civil War hit home for every American household of the 19th century. As fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbors lost their lives, millions of Americans wound up visiting graves and, each spring especially, women decorated the graves. By the end of the war, so much blood had spilled on American soil that it became a necessity to create national cemeteries. In a chapter of American history that was lost from our history books for many years, thousands of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, memorialized hundreds of Union prisoners of war on May 1, 1865, honoring the unnamed soldiers in the first resemblance of a Memorial Day. As the years passed, this annual commemoration became known as “Decoration Day.” That Charleston burial ground was framed by an arch, which read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” According to historian David Blight, “African Americans invented Memorial Day … recently freed from slavery [they were] announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet and their songs what the War had been about.”
earlier published a more detailed story about Blight’s research into the original Decoration/Memorial Day, a story that includes historical photographs.


Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan in the general’s tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862.The famed sociologist of American religion, Robert Bellah, redefined the meaning of Memorial Day in a landmark article he published in a 1967 issue of Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He called his long article “Civil Religion in America,” taking the centuries-old concept of “civil religion” and kicked off decades of fresh research into how our civil religion defines our American culture. You can read Bellah’s entire original article online.

A few lines from Bellah’s article about Memorial Day …
Until the Civil War, the American civil religion focused above all on the event of the Revolution, which was seen as the final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were the sacred scriptures and Washington the divinely appointed Moses who led his people out of the hands of tyranny.

The Civil War, which Sidney Mead calls “the center of American history,” was the second great event that involved the national self-understanding so deeply as to require expression in civil religion. … The Civil War raised the deepest questions of national meaning. The man who not only formulated but in his own person embodied its meaning for Americans was Abraham Lincoln. For him the issue was not in the first instance slavery but “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” …

With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice, and rebirth enters the new civil religion. It is symbolized in the life and death of Lincoln. Nowhere is it stated more vividly than in the Gettysburg Address, itself part of the Lincolnian “New Testament” among the civil scriptures. Robert Lowell has recently pointed out the “insistent use of birth images” in this speech explicitly devoted to “these honored dead”: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “a new birth of freedom.” Lowell goes on to say: “The Gettysburg Address is a symbolic and sacramental act. … In his words, Lincoln symbolically died, just as the Union soldiers really died—and as he himself was soon really to die. By his words, he gave the field of battle a symbolic significance that it has lacked. … He left Jefferson’s ideals of freedom and equality joined to the Christian sacrificial act of death and rebirth.” … Lowell is certainly right in pointing out the Christian quality of the symbolism here, but he is also right in quickly disavowing any sectarian implication. …

Memorial Day, which grew out of the Civil War, gave ritual expression to the themes we have been discussing. As Lloyd Warner has so brilliantly analyzed it, the Memorial Day observance, especially in the towns and smaller cities of America, is a major event for the whole community involving a rededication to the martyred dead, to the spirit of sacrifice, and to the American vision.


Presidents continue to issue annual statements defining Memorial Day for each new year. The Obama White House issued this statement for Memorial Day 2012 …

Our Nation endures and thrives because of the devotion of our men and women in uniform, who, from generation to generation, carry a burden heavier than any we may ever know. On Memorial Day, we honor those who have borne conflict’s greatest cost, mourn where the wounds of war are fresh, and pray for a just, lasting peace. The American fabric is stitched with the stories of sons and daughters who gave their lives in service to the country they loved. They were patriots who overthrew an empire and sparked revolution. They were courageous men and women who strained to hold a young Union together.  They were ordinary citizens who rolled back the creeping tide of tyranny, who stood post through a long twilight struggle, who saw terror and extremism threaten our world’s security and said, “I’ll go.” And though their stories are unique to the challenges they faced, our fallen service members are forever bound by a legacy of valor older than the Republic itself. Now they lay at rest in quiet corners of our country and the world, but they live on in the families who loved them and in the soul of a Nation that is safer for their service.

Today, we join together in prayer for the fallen. We remember all who have borne the battle, whose devotion to duty has sustained our country and kept safe our heritage as a free people in a free society. Though our hearts ache in their absence, we find comfort in knowing that their legacy lives on in all of us—in the security that lets us live in peace, the prosperity that allows us to pursue our dreams, and the love that still beats in those who knew them. May God bless the souls of the venerable warriors we have lost, and may He watch over the men and women who serve us now. Today, tomorrow, and in perpetuity, let us give thanks to them by remaining true to the values and virtues for which they fight.


Watch The National Memorial Day Concert on PBS, Sunday Night May 27. The concert starts at 8 p.m. Eastern Time—but the official PBS concert website has a link in the upper left to “check your local listings.” The annual broadcast is one of PBS’s highest-rated specials, each year. This year’s program is co-hosted for the seventh time by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, both of whom volunteer throughout the year in support of U.S. troops and veterans. Guests for the 2012 broadcast include Colin Powell, Natalie Cole, the rock band Daughtry, American Idol finalist Jessica Sanchez and many others.

Want kid-friendly craft ideas? Check out Kaboose’s instructions for a series of Memorial Day crafts you can make at home, involving all ages around the table.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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