Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Memorial Day: A Holiday of Public Consent

Memorial Day was originally created to honor Civil War casualties, but over the years has grown to include tributes to fallen soldiers in subsequent conflicts, too. Locally, the heraldic stained glass windows at Memorial Library feature the names of Los Angeles High School alumni who gave their lives fighting in World War I.

Memorial Day has its roots in the years following the Civil War, when Americans began honoring the 620,000 soldiers who died fighting the war — a number that, at the time, accounted for nearly two percent of the population. The holiday differs from Veterans Day, when we celebrate all who have served in our military.

“One of the earliest accounts [of Memorial Day] comes from Boalsburg, Pa., where, in October 1864, three women are said to have placed flowers and wreaths on the graves of men who had died serving the Union during the Civil War,” reported the New York Times in a story today on the origins of the holiday.

Initially called “Decoration Day, the Times reports, commemorative events grew over the years, and the name was changed to “Memorial Day.”

On May 31, 1870, the New York Times described festivities around the region celebrating Memorial Day:

“Except the day on which is celebrated the independence of these United States, there is no day that calls out the patriotic feelings of our people more than “Memorial Day.” The 30th of May has come to be a National holiday–not by any enactment of Congress, not by any enactment of Legislature, but by the general consent of the people. On this day, when the earth is robed in its most beautiful verdure–when everything bids the soul lift itself up to things super-terrestrial- it has been well chosen that the nation should pay homage and reverence to the manes of those who bared their breasts to the battle’s front when treason sought to overthrow our national institutions, and discord sought to make of an hitherto united people a dissevered and divided nation. All over the Union yesterday was celebrated as a fit and appropriate occasion on which to testify the honor in which is held the memory of the heroic dead who, fighting in freedom’s cause, bravely fell.”

The holiday’s celebration of the heroic role Black Americans have played in our nation’s wars is less well known. And while Memorial Day events initially focused on reconciliation, as described above, in the South they quickly became a partisan tool advancing the idea that both sides fought the Civil War for a noble cause, wrote historian David Blight in a 2011 Op-Ed for the New York Times.

Against the backdrop of today’s highly partisan and divided political climate, as our national leaders struggle to find a comprise to raise our national debit celling to avoid catastrophic  economic consequences for the global economy, perhaps Memorial Day should once again be remembered as more than just the official start of summer or a busy travel day. Perhaps it can once again become a day of national celebration going back to its roots of public consensus of what unites us, rather than divides us.

We are fortunate to live in one of the most prosperous nations on earth — certainly not perfect, but worth celebrating and worth continuing to work together to improve.

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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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