In Christian Standard’s archives, the first prominent mention of Decoration Day—as Memorial Day was originally known—was from 1899. Decoration Day began in the years immediately following the Civil War (1861-65), when various cities and towns began holding springtime tributes to fallen soldiers and decorating their graves with flowers and flags. Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971.
Here’s that editorial from 122 years ago.
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May 27, 1899; p. 10
lt would be an ungrateful nation that did not remember the purchase price of its unity and greatness, its peace and progress. Decoration Day has become as firmly fixed with us as the Fourth of July. We have come to expect that at least once a year the old soldiers will go to church, and that they will listen to a patriotic sermon. It is a solemn function, this of planting flowers and flags on the graves of the men who died for their country. There is no more inexpensive and beautiful way of fanning the flames of patriotism. Some of the old soldiers still live to visit graves of their comrades, but for the most part the hands that “cover them over with beautiful flowers” are those of children and grandchildren. There is a great multitude of these graves. Our Civil War was the most terrible in all history. All told, there were nearly nine hundred battlefields, and the names of many of them, such as the Wilderness, Missionary Ridge, Bull Run, Fort Sumter, Lookout Mountain, the Bloody Angle and Gettysburg will never be forgotten. . . .[The 1899 editorial included Civil War casualty numbers which have since been revised upwards. The American Battlefield Trust website, circa 2021, lists 620,000 total killed—both Northerners and Southerners—476,000 wounded, and 400,000 captured/missing during America’s Civil War. The editorial from 1899 speaks of people “scarred and crippled for life” and people who “directly passed from their peaceful homes to death or lifelong suffering.”]
. . . Theirs [the Confederates], too, are the graves of heroes, for, though they fought in a mistaken cause, they fought none the less bravely. So far as all that goes to make consummate generalship and heroism are concerned, the names of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee will live by the side of John Brown and U.S. Grant. For a full generation the two sections have been one nation, and the same flag floats over them both.
In our recent conflict with a foreign nation [the Spanish-American War in 1898] we buried all the bitterness of the past, and since the South was as responsive of the calls of the President as the North, we have no hesitance in bringing our tribute of remembrance and respect to all these graves alike. They are brothers now, these dead heroes of ours, even as our living heroes are likewise brothers.
“What an inspiring sight,” said Senator [John] Thurston [of Nebraska], “to see those who once fought against each other now rallying under the one flag, exulting and rejoicing that the azure field of the Union banner holds in equal honor every star of statehood. . . . After a third of a century of peace and prosperity all the children of our common country kneel at the altar of a reunited faith. The blue and gray lie in eternal slumber side by side. Heroes all! They fell face to face, brother against brother, to expiate a nation’s sin.
These hundreds of thousands of graves by their mournful silence are speaking to us a sublime language. They are the national atonement for a nation’s sin. “The political audacity of the slave power made it a political necessity to kill slavery.” Slavery, like a huge, myriad-handed monster in going down seized and dragged with her these myriads of men. Strangely and sadly enough, her death was conditioned upon theirs, and the depth of her shame is proportioned to the height of their glory. . . .
“O grave, where is thy victory?” Up to the extreme of all this world’s limits the grave has its victories. It has its victory absolute over all the selfish and sensual and worldly classes who go down into its oblivion. It has no victory of the spirits, but only over the bodies, of Christ’s saintly ones. Such graves as we decorate year by year have their solemn victory over great and special sins.
Such immeasurably was Christ’s death. His grave was the victory over all sin and all death, and his resurrection is the victory over it. His empty tomb stands in eternal rebuke of death itself, so that in him as the risen Saviour death is dead, and life is brought to light. He is our greatest hero, and his tomb needs not the poor tribute of our flowers and our flags, for its glory is its vacancy, and the only real tribute we can pay to it is our burial and our resurrection with him who, though buried, is risen and regnant [i.e., reigning].
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The image is a Decoration Day postcard from 1908 (public domain).