top of page

Memorial Day – May 27, 2024

A Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation

On Memorial Day we have an opportunity to honor those who sacrificed their lives while serving in the U.S. military. Every year, we explore historical accounts of this important day to learn more about it.

Memorial Day began as a way to remember the more than 650,000 troops who died during the Civil War (1861-1865), more casualties than any other conflict in U.S. history. The loss was so great that it required the establishment of America’s first national cemeteries.

After the Civil War, people in towns and cities across the country gathered to mourn fallen soldiers—family members and friends—by praying together and decorating their graves with flowers. Different towns marked the occasion on different dates, usually in April or May, the ideal time to harvest flowers, and many used the name Decoration Day (later renamed as Memorial Day).

Of the earliest Decoration Day commemorations, one was organized by formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Washington Race Course, where prized horses once ran. During the Civil War, the field served as a prisoner-of-war camp. Hundreds of soldiers were held there and many died there from injuries or dysentery due to the inhumane conditions. Nearly 300 were hastily buried there in dirt mounds with no grave markers. Just after the war ended, Charleston residents built a fence around the field and placed a monument on the site.

Another was initiated in 1866 in Waterloo, New York, by a local pharmacist named Henry Welles, and Civil War General-turned-County-Clerk John Murray. In Waterloo, flags were flown at half-staff, businesses closed, graves were decorated with flowers and small flags, and people came together to heal.

Ceremonies honor fallen soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865

It is believed that Welles and Murray were inspired by yet another group, made up of women, in Columbus, Mississippi.  Among the women was Mary Ann Williams, secretary of the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus. She was quoted in the Columbus Daily Sun as saying: “Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation, forbearance, and brotherly love.” (March 1866) Her group called on their community to place flowers on the graves of soldiers including her husband, who was killed in the war. It was noted that flowers were placed on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers as a gesture of reconciliation.

The following year, an item about the Mississippi women appeared in the New York Tribune and caught the eye of an Ithaca, New York lawyer by the name of Francis M. Finch.

Francis M. Finch, Author of “The Blue and The Gray” (1867)

Finch also happened to write poetry. Reading about the actions of the Mississippi women inspired Finch to write a poem, “The Blue and The Gray,” which was published in the Atlantic Monthly and widely circulated across the nation (see below).

Meanwhile, in Carbondale, Illinois, Union General John A. Logan called for the recognition of Decoration Day as a national day of remembrance to be held annually on May 30th beginning in 1868, in honor of Civil War Veterans.

During World War I (1914-1918), the holiday was expanded to honor fallen military personnel in all wars, and the holiday became more widely accepted in the South.

In 1966, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day, in recognition of the centennial anniversary of that town’s first celebration. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed federal legislation declaring the same. It wasn’t until 1971 that Memorial Day officially became a federal holiday, designated as the last Monday in May.

The Blue And The Gray by Francis M. Finch

By the flow of the inland river,

Whence the fleets of iron have fled,

Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,

Asleep are the ranks of the dead:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day;

Under the one, the Blue,

Under the other, the Gray.       

These in the robings of glory,

Those in the gloom of defeat,

All with the battle-blood gory,

In the dusk of eternity meet:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Under the laurel, the Blue,

Under the willow, the Gray.

From the silence of sorrowful hours

The desolate mourners go,

Lovingly laden with flowers

Alike for the friend and the foe:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Under the roses, the Blue,

Under the lilies, the Gray.

So, with an equal splendor,

The morning sun-rays fall,

With a touch impartially tender,

On the blossoms blooming for all:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Broidered with gold, the Blue,

Mellowed with gold, the Gray.

So, when the summer calleth,

On forest and field of grain,

With an equal murmur falleth

The cooling drip of the rain:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Wet with the rain, the Blue,

Wet with the rain, the Gray.

Sadly, but not with upbraiding,

The generous deed was done,

In the storm of the years that are fading

No braver battle was won:

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Under the blossoms, the Blue,

Under the garlands, the Gray.

No more shall the war cry sever,

Or the winding rivers be red;

The banish our anger forever

When they laurel the graves of our dead!

Under the sod and the dew,

Waiting the judgment-day,

Love and tears for the Blue,

Tears and love for the Gray.

Taking the Memorial Day Tradition a Step Further

As with so many holidays, the original meaning of Memorial Day might be obscured by capitalism and popular culture if it were not for the desire of the American people to preserve the meaning for present and future generations. Memorial Day is a solemn remembrance for those who sacrificed their lives to protect our freedoms and our Constitution. It’s also a day of reconciliation.

In 2000, the federal government enacted legislation calling for all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day.

On May 27th, 2024, cities across the country will hold Memorial Day parades, with marching bands, active duty and retired military units, youth groups, veterans and community members. In Washington, DC, hundreds of thousands of Americans will walk together down Constitution Avenue for the National Memorial Day Parade. Thousands will attend the Memorial Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery. The President or Vice President will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

National cemeteries will place flags on the graves of each member of the military. Thousands of volunteers, many from The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and other fraternal organizations, including Elks, Moose, Rotary, and Patriot Guard Riders, will donate their time as a way to honor our Veterans throughout history.

Family and friends of Veterans will continue the tradition of decorating headstones with flags, flowers and wreaths, gathering to pray and sing songs together, recognizing that freedom is never free, and reconciliation is as important today as it ever was.

Plan to attend your local Memorial Day event:

Morgan Hill Veterans Memorial Square

Monday, May 27th, 9:00-10:00 AM

Monterey at First Street in downtown Morgan Hill


bottom of page