Memorial Day means different things to different people. For many, it is the unofficial start to the summer season filled with grilling and celebration. For others, it is a day to solemnly reflect on the sacrifices made by those fighting in the Armed Forces. The holiday, which emerged during the Civil War, reflects the needs, beliefs, and politics of those organizing publicly advertised celebrations. As we’ll explore in this post, in the early 20th century different groups organized Memorial Day celebrations around Florida and, due to American participation in World War I, by the beginning of the 1920s more groups than ever before were organizing Memorial Day celebrations. In America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920, historian Ellen M. Litwicki makes the point that “the best window on public holidays in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the popular press. Because journalists generally supported the goals of such events, they promoted holiday rituals heavily in their pages, editorialized on the significance of commemorations, and published extensive descriptive accounts of the rituals and oratory” (Litwicki 5). It is no surprise then that our historic papers serve as an excellent chronicle of the attitudes and actors involved in Florida’s Memorial Day celebrations.
While the exact origin of Memorial Day is contested by historians, various cities and groups who benefit from claiming to be the originators of this Federal Holiday keep the debate in the public eye. However, there is consensus according to Litwicki that, “the idea of a holiday specifically to mourn the dead was a product of the nineteenth-century convergence of sentimental, evangelical, and romantic attitudes toward death, mourning, and the hereafter, which coalesced in the rural cemetery movement of the 1830s” (Litwicki 11). This cultural acceptance of collective public mourning is likely why the holiday, with region variations, became a nation-wide celebration by the end of the 19th century. But just because Memorial Day was celebrated in both the North and the South doesn’t mean different groups were celebrating the same ideas.
In Southern states, including Florida, Memorial Day was celebrated on April 26th which coincides with the “the anniversary of General Joseph Johnston’s surrender” at the end of the Civil War (Litwicki 13). In the North, Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30th and was interchangeably referred to as Decoration Day although, according Litwicki The Grand Army of the Republic “ campaigned against the use of the new name as insufficiently descriptive of the day’s purpose, declaring in an 1882 resolution that the proper name of the day was Memorial Day” (Litwicki 26-27). In our papers, searches for both “Decoration Day” and “Memorial Day” will result in many stories. It is common to see references to celebrations organized by the Daughters of the Confederacy in April, while celebrations in May were typically organized by the Grand Army of the Republic, although sometimes Confederate groups would organize additional celebrations. In the early 20th century, both groups would often open their celebrations to include veterans of the Spanish American War while still maintaining the two distinct holidays. The important point is that celebrations of Memorial Days were not uniformly celebrated in Florida. Some cities, like Pensacola, held both Confederate and GAR memorial celebrations. While others, like Daytona, had populations that largely celebrated one holiday or another. For example, in 1917 The Daytona daily news remarked that while banks were closed for “Confederate memorial day” on April 26th “no other observation of the day is made here as this city is largely composed of people from the northern states and the few Confederate soldiers and southern people residing here have accepted the northern Decoration day, May 30th, which is more generally observed in this city and vicinity.” Confederate celebrations generally remembered the Lost Cause, while GAR celebrations generally heralded the triumph of the Union and 50 years after the war the distinction remained divisive.
United States participation in World War I seems to have shifted the focus of Memorial Day from only past sacrifices, be they Confederate or Union, to include the contemporary actions of Americans engaged in combat in Europe. May 30, 1918 was “designated by President Wilson as a day of prayer for the success of the nation in the great war.” Interestingly, The Ocala evening star uses their article as an opportunity to link past struggles with those of the present stating “it is easy to imagine the men of the mighty armies of the blue and gray watching from the spirit world the battle that their sons and grandsons in khaki are waging for their native land and all humanity.” This local perspective is different than that of the Associated Press article which appears on the front page of The Pensacola journal. This more national and present-focused piece boldly proclaims Memorial Day 1918 has “taken on a deeper significance. The day is consecrated anew to the thousands who recently have given their lives in perhaps the noblest cause for which America ever has fought” while also containing the text of President Wilson’s proclamation.
The more present-focused Memorial Day celebrations were not without controversy. During and after World War I, some groups, including The Ocala evening star and Tampa Times in Florida, began to suggest that a “common memorial day for North and South” would be preferable to continuing the dual holiday structure. Many Confederate groups rejected such proposals. The Lakeland Camp of the United Confederate Veterans, for instance, stated that they opposed the idea because they felt “to agree to the aforesaid merger would be a fire-brand instead of an olive branch.” The reason for thinking reconciliation would be a “fire brand” largely has to do with the fear that universal ceremonies would stifle the recognition that Confederate cause had been valid and noble if dictated by the Federal government.
By the end of World War I, another major actor emerged in discussions of how to frame Memorial Day celebrations. The American Legion, formed in 1919, was an organization dedicated to the memory of those who served in the war. Historian Lisa M. Budreau discusses the Legion in her book Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in America 1919-1933. She claims that “even the organization’s moniker was a reminder of what its members represented, and it reflected their insistence that the war should not be forgotten. To risk the loss of memory would have threatened the very core of the Legion’s raison d’etre, the myth of the fallen solider and the glories of America’s victories” (Budreau 142). And as Civil War veterans aged, the Legion, according to historian Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary, “replaced the Grand Army of the Republic as the nation’s military conscience, spearheaded the drive to promote a conservative political ethos and enforce ‘100 percent Americanism’” (O’Leary 243-244). American Legion efforts to engage in memory projects related to Memorial Day after WWI, involved raising money to decorate American graves overseas, raising money for grave markers, and encouraging people to wear the poppy to remember the war.
While Memorial Day is dedicated to the memories of those who have fought and died for the United States, many groups have tried to shape the tone and meaning of those celebrations. We encourage people do dive into our papers and read more about Memorial Day and Decoration Day, paying close attention to the different actors who are and aren’t present in the news.
Citations and Additional Sources
Budreau, Lisa M. Bodies of War: World War I and the Politics of Commemoration in American Life 1919-1933. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
Litwicki, Ellen M. America’s Public Holidays 1865-1920. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institutional Press, 2000.
O’Leary, Cecilia Elizabeth. To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Penack, William. For God and Country: The American Legion, 1919-1941. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.