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Happy Memorial Day. Thank the Confederacy.

On the surprising origins of an official federal holiday that now marks the opening of summer in the United States.
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Young Confederate soldier. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Young Confederate soldier. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Since the late 19th century the United States has unofficially opened summer with Memorial Day. The barbecues, bringing out the deck furniture, and (apparently) wearing white all occur in conjunction with a holiday to honor the American war dead. And unlike Labor Day, which now tends not to be so generous to actual laborers, Memorial Day really is still all about those who died fighting in wars, featuring parades where veterans, both young and old, march through town proudly clad in their uniforms, if they can still fit into them. In my home town the parade ends with a trip to the cemetery, where they fire off a 21-gun salute to dead soldiers.

As President Bill Clinton said of  Memorial Day back in 2000, the day is for those who died in all American wars, since “every generation has borne a  share of the burden of defending the Republic and giving to each succeeding generation the chance for freedom.”

"Rituals are commonly credited with all kinds of functions: supernatural, symbolic, expressive, social, and so on. But how they serve these functions is opaque"

Oddly enough, however, the holiday appears to be a copy of one that existed to venerate those who took offensive action against the Republic, specifically the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.

In the aftermath of the surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, many Confederate states began an effort to honor those who, well, fought the United States in a valiant effort to preserve slavery. The holiday didn’t seem to feature parades of veterans; it was simply a day, often beginning with a church service, for families to go to cemeteries and tend to and leave flowers on the graves of the roughly 350,000 soldiers killed fighting the U.S.

According to one writer, people first began observing Memorial Day in the South because aid societies, which existed to “serve the Confederacy by such means as lay within the power of the gentler sex,” had sent warm clothing to Confederate troops, nursed them in hospitals, and buried them when they died. But then, once the war was over, there was only one task left for them: “Beyond the ... task of caring for the graves in various cemeteries there was little left for the women of the South to do—no other way apparently in which they could serve a Lost Cause.” And so the aid societies became groups devoted to caring for Confederate graves, and raising memorials to the dead. They chose a special day at the end of April to devote to this project. The union, whose citizens were a little less fervent in their enthusiasm for the cause, had no holiday to pay tribute to its Civil War dead until a few years later.

The United States began to pay homage to the (Union) Civil War dead thanks to the efforts of General John Logan, the head of a (Union) Civil War veterans fraternity called the Grand Army of the Republic, who rather liked this Memorial Day idea and became concerned that the only day to mourn the dead soldiers in the Civil War seemed to apply to what were technically America’s enemies.

Logan, who fought at the Battle of Bull Run and was involved in the Vicksburg Campaign (and the man for which Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle is named) used his position as head of the country’s Civil War veterans’ association to simply proclaim his own soldiers’ Memorial Day. It was, his widow later explained, deliberately based on the Confederate holiday, which he appeared to admire as a reasonably tasteful and appropriate memorial to the Southern cause. Her husband, she later wrote, "said it was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South in perpetuating the memory of their friends who had died for the cause they thought just and right."

All of this should not be terribly surprising. Rituals evolve in interesting ways in different societies. As Oxford  anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse explains:

Rituals are commonly credited with all kinds of functions: supernatural, symbolic, expressive, social, and so on. But how they serve these functions is opaque, inasmuch as the casual link between socially stipulated procedures and their punitive end goals (if any) is opaque. Teleological opacity of one kind is one of the hallmark features of ritualized behavior. Social anthropologists have often observed that ritual participants are powerlessto explain why they carry out their distinctive procedures and ceremonies, appealing only to tradition or to ancestors.

What distinguishes rituals from other kinds of ... behavior is that the relationship between actions and stated goals (if indeed they are stated at all) cannot even in principle be specified in physical-causal terms. To seek out a practical rational is to misunderstand the very natural of ritualized behavior.

Granted, most participants in American Memorial Day rituals are very much aware that the day honors the war dead, but what’s interesting here is that it appears the rituals could be more or less divorced from the ostensive purpose of the holiday. Or they can be copied to serve a different purpose.

It’s not really all that uncommon for a celebration to evolve like this. Indeed, it’s almost human nature that, over time, a unique holiday will get incorporated into regular life. Much like the way Americans now celebrate Mardi Gras even if they have no intention of fasting and staying in for the 40 days of Lent following the event, or some people celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a visit to the ski slopes, Memorial Day has evolved to pay tribute to something very different from the group originally venerated.

Logan first declared Memorial Day on May 30, 1868, by putting flowers on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871. By 1890 people celebrated the holiday in all the northern states. After World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate “all men and women, who have died in military service for the United States,” not just those who died in the Civil War. After World War II people stopped calling it “Decoration Day” and we went with “Memorial.” In 1968 Congress voted to change the date and make it an official holiday, giving federal workers a three-day weekend by closing offices on the last Monday in May.

Technically, the holiday honors all men and women who have died in military service for the United States of America, which unequivocally excludes the Confederate War dead. They died, after all, in military service against the United States of America. But this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. Memorial Day is now celebrated with equal, perhaps greater, zeal in the American South today (likely reflecting the fact that new recruits to the U.S. military come disproportionately from that region).

Many Southern states still maintain holidays for Confederate soldiers. It’s generally celebrated with a ceremony of some sort on April 26, though different states have different dates.

The holiday has become increasingly controversial, however, due to changing demographic patterns in the South and the fact that Confederate Decoration Day celebrants are often associated with white supremacy movements.