Recently in my History Monday posts I’ve been talking about the Gilded Age (US) or late-Victorian Age (UK), especially as it relates to the world of 1890s Montana in which my Montana Romance series is set. But how, I thought, could I make a connection between Memorial Day, which we’re celebrating today in America, and this fascinating era of history?
Well, it turns out that not only is there a connection, but that everything that Memorial Day stands for was at the core of what gave the Gilded Age its character. Whoa. Yeah. Took my breath away when I discovered it. Here’s what I found.
One of the driving, defining factors of the Gilded Age was the contrast between rich and poor, technological advancement and social injustice, the haves and the have-nots. It was an era when tremendous improvements in life were being undercut by tragic injustices. This uncomfortable dichotomy, indeed the Gilded Age itself, began at the end of the Civil War.
We’re so far removed from the Civil War now and have had two or three more earth-shattering wars since then, but to the people living in America in the second half of the 19th century, the Civil War was the defining moment of their lives. The armed conflict portion of the war ended in 1865, but the causes and wounds continued to burn for decades. All that amazing prosperity that marks the Gilded Age? It was enjoyed by the victors, the North and the West. The Northern and Western economy boomed and cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco saw their flowering and golden ages.
Meanwhile, the poverty, the social injustice, and the scars of defeat that mark the underside of the Gilded Age were felt most fiercely in the South. Sure, African Americans had been freed from slavery, but so many were freed into a land of economic instability that had been ravaged by battle, that tensions remained high and life hard. Couple with that the fact that Northern “carpetbaggers” invaded the land, intent on reforming and modernizing the Southern economy, as they saw it, or destroying Southern culture and taking advantage of the defeated, as the South saw it, and you had a recipe for a division that, in all honestly, lasts to this day.
So the Gilded Age flowered amidst this bitter resentment. The railroads, industry, and social growth that mark the last half of the 19th century happened at an unequal pace in a land that was unified by law but as separate as could be at heart. The Civil War was not over.
But what does this have to do with Memorial Day?
There are several different theories about how Memorial Day started, and it is generally agreed that it was, in fact, several separate days of remembrance that eventually melded together to form one nationwide holiday. Two of these celebrations began in the South.
The first took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. Lincoln had been assassinated in April, and all sorts of ceremonies of remembrance were held throughout the country. The celebration in Charleston was particularly significant because of who was celebrating and why. There had been a huge Confederate prison camp at Charleston Race Course in which hundreds of Union soldiers had died and were buried in unmarked graves. On May 1st, in honor and memory of those soldiers who had come to fight for their freedom, a group of former slaves cleaned up and build a landmark at the site of the graves, singing and commemorating the “Second War of Independence”.
The second wasn’t far behind but marked a very different kind of celebration. In 1866, the women of Columbus, Georgia began the tradition of what would become Confederate Memorial Day. It was a time of mourning and remembrance of The Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The soldiers of the losing side were remembered and the nobility and heroism of their leaders was celebrated, canonized even. By the early 20th century, Jefferson Davis’s birthday, June 3rd, was also celebrated in 10 Southern states as a Memorial Day.
There were various celebrations in the North to mark the soldiers of the Civil War as well, but the celebrations had a different feel. By 1868 the date of May 30th was chosen as “Decoration Day”, a day when the graves of soldiers who had fought in the war were decorated with flags and flowers to honor their sacrifice. The date was chosen, in part, because no major battles had been fought on that day.
As significant as these celebrations were to both the North and the South, they were strictly separate traditions which held an undercurrent of rancor and grief. Each side continued to blame the other until well into the 1880s (and some would argue that they still do today). The name “Memorial Day” was not standardized until 1888, and it wasn’t until after World War II that the occasion was standardized. It was 1967, over a hundred years after the Civil War, that the name was made official in federal law and 1968 when the date it would be celebrated nationwide was chosen.
So as you celebrate today, remember the powerful emotional origins of “the official start of summer”. Nowadays we might see this as the first weekend to open up the beach house or have a cookout, but during the Gilded Age it was a time of mourning, a time of victory, a remembrance of the loss of a way of life, and a celebration of the triumph of industry over antiquity. It’s a lot to chew on, isn’t it.
[all photographs are public domain, via Wikicommons]