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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Story of Memorial Day


Many cities and towns claim to have held the first Memorial Day ceremony. But where did this holiday really begin? And how did it evolve in the public mind from a solemn commemoration of military sacrifices, to a general display of public patriotism, to the unofficial launch of summer, and finally back to its solemn roots? Here's the answer, with an emphasis on Wisconsin examples.

Civil War Origin

Setting aside a specific day to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers began at the end of the Civil War, when Southern widows placed flowers not only on their Confederate husbands' graves but also on nearby neglected graves of Union soldiers. In May 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (a nationwide Union veterans group) declared that all G.A.R. members should observe May 30th as a time to remember soldiers on both sides who had been killed. The first town to officially do this was Waterloo, New York, but by 1890 the holiday was recognized by all of the northern states. After World War I, Memorial Day shifted from honoring only those who had died in the Civil War to a time to pay tribute to all Americans who had died in any war.

Wisconsin Memorial Days

Wisconsin was quick to join the rest of the nation in celebrating Memorial Day. Here is a long newspaper story detailing how it was observed in our capitol city in 1875. In contrast, this article shows how residents of the small village of Hancock in Waushara County observed it during World War I.

By 1931, Wisconsin residents had expanded their concept of Memorial Day to include respect for American Indian warriors who had served in the U.S. military. In that year, Potawatomi chief Simon Kahquados, who had died shortly before, was buried in Peninsula State Park near his ancestors on Memorial Day.

From Somber Time to Party Time (and Back Again)

In 1971, Congress made Memorial Day an official holiday falling on the last Monday in May. This guaranteed a three-day weekend at the start of the summer, and the day began to disconnect from its roots. With parades such as this one in Elm Grove led by toddlers in 1979, it began to evolve in the popular mind into just another long weekend for a family vacation.

But in recent decades, America's involvement in new wars has led to a resurgence of interest in its origins and customs. The sale of red poppies to support veterans relief organizations, which originated shortly after World War One, was resurrected. So Memorial Day has evolved once again, this time from a mere holiday for brats and beer back into a time to remember and reflect on soldiers from all communities, men and women, who died while fighting for the country they cherished.


:: Posted in on May 22, 2013
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