Saturday, September 24, 2011

The History Behind Memorial Day

Although I know we are 4 months beyond the last Memorial Day and will wait 8 more months before it comes around again, I was fascinated to learn how it came to be through my readings from the History Connected program coursework this year.  I knew it became an official American holiday in the late twentieth century, but I did not know the roots of Memorial Day stretch all the way back to the post-Civil War era.


To understand this American desire to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, one must first understand the scale of death that Americans were coping with in the wake of the War Between the States.
The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.  The Civil War's rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II.  A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean 6 million fatalities.-Faust, pg xi.
So how did they cope?  How does a society ensure that it does not forget the horrors of a war like that, but at the same time prevent the memories from becoming all-consuming and preventing progress?

I found the answer in another book.
Soon after the war ended, the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, a large and successful Union veterans organization led by a U.S. senator and former Union general named John Logan] began to encourage the commemoration of Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering the war dead. To a certain extent the GAR had merely standardized and formalized an increasingly common observance. In the South, as early as 1865, groups of women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers and held memorial services in the spring. The custom spread north in 1866 and 1867 and was celebrated on a wide variety of spring days. The GAR played a crucial role in turning Memorial Day into a widely observed holiday in the North and in eventually making it an official federal holiday.-Piehler, pg 58.
Of course, being who I am, I wanted to find out more and to find some multimedia resources I could share with my students when the holiday comes around again next year.  After a little searching on YouTube and TeacherTube, I found a decent little video on the history of Memorial Day, formerly referred to at Decoration Day, at History.com.


OK, so I have a good video clip of the history.  Now how do I connect all of this to their own lives?  I needed a video that showed the students how meaningful Memorial Day still is.  Unlike the post-Civil War era, many Americans in our time don't know anyone who has died in sacrifice for our nation.  The history should touch our students in order for them to best learn from it.  History.com came through again with a touching tribute that contains both historical and present-day footage.  I teared up when I first watched it.




I managed to work all of this information into my final project for Year Two of the History Connected program.  Feel free to check it out to learn more.  It is called Civil War: Behind the Scenes, and it strives to show students the parts of Civil War history that are often glossed over by text books and state curriculum frameworks.

I hope this information on Memorial Day will be useful to you and your students in 8 more months.  In the mean time, we should encourage our students to be mindful of the sacrifices others make for us more often than once per year on an official holiday.

Resources:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2008. 
Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1995.
History of Memorial Day Video, http://www.history.com/topics/memorial-day-history/videos#history-of-memorial-day
Memorial Day Tribute Video, http://www.history.com/videos/a-memorial-day-tribute#history-of-memorial-day