Today has been our national day to reflect on the sacrifices of American service members who have given their lives in battle. This is not a holiday that leapt into being all at once, with a single stroke of an executive pen—it’s a day whose foundations have been laid down in layers for more than 200 years.
Memorial Day’s origins actually go back for thousands of years, for as long as societies have honored their fallen defenders through ceremony, song, feasting, decorating grave sites, and other means. In the United States, one of the earliest such celebrations took place in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, just three weeks after the end of the Civil War. During the last weeks of the war, a racetrack called Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had been built for the enjoyment of wealthy planters in the region, had been converted into a prison camp. Under appalling conditions, more than 250 captured Union soldiers died of disease and exposure. They were buried in a mass grave behind the track’s grandstand. According to David W. Blight, 28 black workmen (presumably former slaves) entered the grounds on May 1 and re-buried the dead in individual graves. They erected a whitewashed fence around the cemetery, and on the arch above the entrance, wrote “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
Then, Blight goes on to say,
Black Charlestonians, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders’ race course. … At 9 a.m. on May 1, the procession stepped off led by three thousand black schoolchildren carrying arm loads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” The children were followed by several hundred black women with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantry and other black and white citizens. As many as possible gathered in the cemetery enclosure; a children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and several spirituals before several black ministers read from scripture. No record survives of which biblical passages rung out in the warm spring air, but the spirit of Leviticus 25 was surely present at those burial rites: “for it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you … in the year of this jubilee he shall return every man unto his own possession.”
Following the solemn dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: they enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantry participating was the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite. The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration.1
On June 9, 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg, Virginia, embarked on a project to tend the graves of their fallen Confederate soldiers, many of the dead being their own husbands, fathers, and sons. Mary Logan, wife of Union General John Alexander Logan (commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic), made a trip to Petersburg. The article she wrote about her journey was published in the May 30, 1903, edition of the Los Angeles Daily Times:
The weather was balmy and spring-like, and as we passed through the rows of graves I noticed that many of them had been strewn with beautiful blossoms and decorated with small flags of the dead Confederacy. The sentimental idea so enwrapped me that I inspected them more closely and discovered that they were every one the graves of soldiers who had died for the Southern cause. The actions seemed to me to be a beautiful tribute to the soldier martyrs and grew upon me while I was returning to Washington. … [A]s soon as [General Logan] met me at the station I told him of the graves of the Southern soldiers in the cemetery at Petersburg. He listened with great interest and then said: “What a splendid thought! We will have it done all over the country, and the Grand Army shall do it! I will issue the order at once for a national Memorial Day for the decoration of the graves of all those noble fellows who died for their country.”
One fact that struck General Logan right away was that the date of such a remembrance should be a time when the entire United States was abloom with flowers. Thus it was that, on May 5, 1868, he issued an order declaring that “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
Mary Logan would remark in her 1903 newspaper article,
Time has shown how well that order has been obeyed, and although the observance of the day has grown as the years have glided into the past and every city and hamlet in the country assists in the noble work, the eyes of the nation are every year centered upon the great national cemetery on the Heights of Arlington where, lying under the emerald lawns and shaded by the great trees, are the bodies in whose honor the day was inaugurated. Nearby the graves of the men who wore the blue are hundreds of mounds that cover all that was mortal of those who wore the gray, and it is one of the most beautiful traits of forgiving humanity that none of them are overlooked on the most sacred day in the American calendar. In Dixie they garland with one hand the mounds above the ashes of the northern soldiers while with the other they strew beautiful blossoms on the graves of their own heroes. We of the north do the same, for they were all heroes, each dying for the cause he thought was right. They gave their all to prove their sincerity, and they all died true Americans whatever their political affiliations may have been.
For 50 years, Decoration Day was held in honor of the fallen in the American Civil War. When the United States entered World War I, the purpose of the day was expanded to include American service members killed in all wars. In 1966, President Johnson formally declared Waterloo, New York, the holiday’s birthplace (although, as we have seen, the observance has made a gradual entrance into the groundwater from multiple sources; other claims on the origin of the holiday come from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Georgia; and Columbus, Mississippi). In 1967, the holiday was officially renamed “Memorial Day,” and in 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act (P.L. 90-363) changed the designated timing of the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May. Since January 1, 1971—the date the law went into effect—Memorial Day has been a legal holiday.
Memorial Day and the United States Mint
America’s currency has often reflected the country’s military history; a few small examples:
- The very existence of Nova Constellatio coppers and other post-colonial coins (including the state coinages of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York) was made possible by the military victory of the American Revolution.
- The Civil War caused a shortage of coinage, which led to novel solutions such as Postage Currency as well as to the advent of Demand Notes and United States Notes. The federal mints in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans, Louisiana, were taken by the Confederates and ceased production in 1861. Only New Orleans resumed striking federal coinage after the war, operating from 1879 to 1909—and during those years, only coins that have the “O” mintmark came from a branch mint that changed hands during the war.
- The Peace dollar, first issued in 1921, commemorated the end of the Great War.
- During World War II, cents in 1943 were struck from steel instead of copper to save the latter for the military.
And of course, the Mint has issued numerous medals and commemorative coins to honor our fallen service members and surviving veterans. These items have generated money for the endowment, restoration, and preservation of memorials to the sacrifice of American service members. Commemorative subjects have included the Korean War Veterans Memorial (1991), Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1994), the WWII 50th Anniversary program (1991–1995), the Civil War Battlefield Preservation program (1995), programs honoring individual branches of the armed forces, and more—an entire book could be written about U.S. commemoratives honoring the sacrifices of the U.S. military.
Coin collecting is a quiet pastime, not often associated with heroics or wars or bloodshed. But coins, perhaps more than any other day-to-day objects, bring the realities of nationhood together with our own, personal reality. Coin collectors, whether of modern commemoratives or classic U.S. circulating coins, are uniquely in touch with this reality. They can appreciate how the humblest clad quarter binds U.S. Mint history to American history—and to the freedom to live as we please, pursue careers, earn money, and argue about the fairness of taxes. Without the sacrifices of our armed services, those freedoms, and so many others, would be impossible.
David W. Blight, “The First Decoration Day,” Newark Star Ledger, April 27, 2015. In 1871, as the “Martyrs of the Race Course” cemetery was suffering from neglect, the bodies were relocated to two different national cemeteries. When the City of Charleston acquired the property in the early 1900s, it was renamed Hampton Park—after Confederate General Wade Hampton III, one of the largest slaveholders in the South prior to the Civil War. ❑