The Confederate origins of Memorial Day

May 29, 2017

The following is not a full transcript; for the full story, listen to the audio.

Memorial Day is typically considered the unofficial beginning of summer. In the US we inaugurate the season with barbecues, beach parties, blockbuster films, and bargain hunting. But that's not how Memorial Day was envisioned by the Southern women who honored the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.

Caroline Janney talks about the origins of Memorial Day and how the meaning has morphed over the decades. Janney is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University and the author of "Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Civil War America)."

"In the year after the Civil War ended ... the United States Army is burying their dead throughout the South where most of the soldiers who had fought in the Civil War had been killed," Janney says. "But there's no Confederate agency, no state agency in the South to do this type work, so women's organizations throughout the South organized throughout 1865, to bury their dead, to create Confederate cemeteries."

Janney says these women also hoped to start an annual tradition of "placing flowers and evergreens on the graves in remembrance for their lost cause, for their defeated cause."

"And so in the spring of 1866, throughout the South, these ladies' organizations picked different days that are symbolic for the local region. Some places choose May 10 — that was the day General Stonewall Jackson died. Others choose April 26 — that's the day that General Johnston finally surrenders in 1865. And on those days, the communities would gather together, they would all proceed to the cemetery together; the women and children would lay flowers and evergreens on the grave, and former ... Confederate leaders would offer some sort of speech about Confederate solders."

According to Janney, Memorial Day wasn't officially a national holiday until much later. "It seems particularly significant that it's in 1971, during the Vietnam War, that Memorial Day is finally declared a national holiday by an act of Congress," she says.

This story originally aired on "The Takeaway."


From The Takeaway ©2017 PRI and WNYC