Memorial Day & Civil War

This weekend I’m going to be celebrating the Memorial Day holiday like most Americans – a picnic, a cookout, time with the family. It will be a welcome respite from the technical work associated with “Rebels on Lake Erie.”

But I can’t help but feel a little guilty about how I’ll be spending Memorial Day, especially when you think about how the holiday and the Civil War are intertwined.

No one argues that Memorial Day got started as a way to remember those who died in the Civil War. But there are lots of different versions about how, where and when the holiday — then called Decoration Day — got started.

One version points to the song “Kneel where our loves are sleeping” by Mrs. L. Nella Sweet as proof that Southern women created the holiday. The sheet music, which was published in 1867, is dedicated “To the ladies of the South who are decorating the graves of the Confederate dead.” It’s kind of a sappy song (Chorus: “Kneel where our loves are sleeping; They lost, but still were good and true; Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting; We weep ‘tis all that we can do.” If you’d like to download the original sheet music, you can find it at, but it serves as evidence to some kind of Memorial Day observation in the South shortly after the end of the war.

Yale historian David W. Blight credits the freed slaves in Charleston, S. Car., with creating the holiday. During the Civil War, the race track in Charleston had been the site of a Union prisoner-of-war camp. During the war, 257 Union soldiers died there and were buried in a mass grave near the grandstand. After the war, 28 African-American workers reburied the Union dead. On May 1, 1865, Charleston freed slaves held a parade at the race course as a way of honoring the Union dead. The New York Tribune reported the news of that commemoration. (For more details on this version of the start of Memorial Day, see

The more conventional interpretation of the start of the holiday credits Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, with creating the first Memorial Day. With General Order No. 11, Logan called for a day to remember those who died in the nation’s service. It was first observed on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington Cemetery.

Memorial Day wasn’t always a day for unity like it was in that Arlington commemoration.

The Northern states quickly embraced the holiday. By 1890, all the Northern states were celebrating the holiday.

Given Memorial Day’s connection with the GAR, Confederate states preferred to honor their dead on another date — ranging from April 25 to mid June. The largest number of Southern states (10) picked June 3, the birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

At the Johnson’s Island prisoner-of-war cemetery (in Ohio), Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Saturday in April. The “Rebels on Lake Erie” crew was putting the finishing touches on the documentary that day, so we couldn’t go. Perhaps next year.

This morning, my dog Sadie and I strolled up to Standing Rock Cemetery (in Kent, Ohio) as our way to remember the Civil War dead, the first purpose of Memorial Day (Decoration Day). We searched in vain for the markers of Union soldiers – and the one Confederate soldier (John Thomas from Virginia). But we did find the 1926 memorial that listed all the Union volunteers from Franklin Township. It was the first time I noticed that the names of two women – nurses – were listed.

After we read all the names, Sadie and I stopped at each of the monuments that commemorated the involvement of Franklin Township men and women in each of the foreign wars. The number didn’t equal the number who served in the Civil War.

Our stroll around the cemetery didn’t take long but it made me feel better about the cook outs this weekend.

Kathleen Endres

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