On Monday, Americans will celebrate Memorial Day. The holiday came to represent the unofficial start to summer. But for many, the day also reminds us to take a few moments to stop and remember a loved one who fought and died for our country on the battlefield. The holiday is steeped in rich history dating back to the American Civil War.
The exact beginnings of this federal holiday are debated, but most scholars say Memorial Day began after the end of the Civil War as a way to remember the vast numbers of dead. It’s recognized during springtime, because that’s when flowers bloomed and could be placed on gravesites.
Berkeley County Council member Elaine Mauck is a retired schoolteacher and lover of history. She spoke about the holiday at a recent Berkeley County Council meeting.
“Memorial Day started, more or less, as the families were reinterring their members that had been killed during the Civil War, and they were going from different battlefields and bringing their family members home,” Mauck said.
There were 750,000 casualties during the American Civil War, according to the National Park Service -- and around 3,000 Union deaths in West Virginia, and more than 30,000 Confederate deaths in Virginia, according to the American Battlefield Trust.
Mauck said there was never an official Memorial Day recognized before the Civil War, because there had never been that sheer number of dead before.
“It was the massive numbers. I mean, Antietam, there was 25,000 killed. It was massive numbers.”
The National Park Service reports the battle of Antietam left 23,000 people dead, wounded or missing, and it lasted for just 12 hours.
Mauck also describes the importance springtime played in the creation of Memorial Day, and how today, we ended up having the holiday at the end of May.
“It was because the flowers in the South were available in April, and then it became, for regular Memorial Day, on May 30; your flowers in the North; your peonies, and the lilacs and things were more available May 30. So, the date was kinda changed to work for everybody.”
Today, our nation's more than 130 national cemeteries often provide a place to celebrate Memorial Day. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports the first national cemeteries were also created as a result of the Civil War.
In 1971, Memorial Day was officially recognized as a federal holiday.