06/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Memorial Day: A History

Mother's Day has just passed. Memorial Day is around the corner. At least on the surface, the two occasions would seem to have little in common besides falling in May. But there is an intriguing connection between the two that comes through American history's bloodiest chapter, the Civil War.

Memorial Day was born in 1868, in the Civil War's wake, as Decoration Day. It was a day set aside to honor fallen soldiers by "decorating" their graves with fresh flowers -- an occasion originally fixed on May 30, when the most flowers are in bloom. For years, it was a profoundly solemn occasion that kept alive the passions of the war that had killed more than 600,000 Americans -- an astonishing tally that equaled some two percent of the population at the time (a comparable loss today would mean 6 million dead). In 1882, it was renamed Memorial Day.

A few years after that first Memorial Day, Julia Ward Howe, a prominent abolitionist best known for writing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, first promoted the idea of a "Mother's Day." But her ambitious concept called for more than a simple celebration of "Mom and apple pie." Reacting to the carnage of the Civil War and Europe's Franco-Prussian War, she later noted in her memoirs:

The question forced itself upon me, 'Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?'

In 1870, Howe issued a "Mothers' Day Proclamation" that read, in part:

Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience...

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!

The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

Howe's international call for mothers to become the voice of pacifism found few takers. Even among like-minded women, there was greater urgency over the suffrage question. Her passionate campaign for a "Mother's Day for Peace" fell by the wayside. (Mother's Day, as we know it, is not the invention of Hallmark; it started in 1912 through the efforts of
Philadelphian Anna Jarvis.)

Today, sadly, both Mother's Day and Memorial Day are largely commercial bonanzas. Mother's Day is a big one for flowers, chocolates and greeting cards. Memorial Day -- a movable feast that was changed by Congress to the last Monday in May in 1968 -- has morphed into the summer's long weekend kickoff, with ever more emphasis on picnic pointers and swimsuit sales.

Last week, I heard the first mention of this solemn occasion in a radio ad for a "Memorial Holiday Mattress Sale!" Perhaps not so coincidentally, I was driving through Dover, Delaware, at the time. Earlier that day I had seen a newspaper photograph of the flag-draped casket of an American soldier killed in Baghdad. The sight of our war dead being lovingly and respectfully carried through Dover Air Force Base had been denied to America for eighteen years -- an unfortunate Pentagon decision that attempted to mask and sanitize the grievous losses suffered since the first Gulf War, right through Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the solemn, sad image of that casket in the morning paper brought Memorial Day and its meaning starkly home for me.

War. Supreme Sacrifice. Loss.

The flag-draped coffin means another mother's child gone, another of Julia Ward Howe's "sons taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience."

Is it possible to truly honor Memorial Day and what Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion" and still work towards Howe's original -- and perhaps utopian -- vision of Mother's Day?

If only we remember the history behind the holiday and what it's really all about.

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