Why We Celebrate Memorial Day

An Excerpt from Our American Holidays: Their Meaning and Spirit, as retold within the pages of St. Nicholas Magazine.


May 30

It is said that the observance of this day grew originally out of the custom of the widows, mothers, and children of the Confederate dead in the South strewing the soldiers’ graves with flowers, including the unmarked graves of the Union soldiers. There was no settled date for this in the North until 1868, when General John A. Logan, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, designated May 30. It is now generally observed, and is a legal holiday in most of the States.

[Editor’s Note: The Uniform Holidays Act established Memorial Day as a federal legal holiday, fixed on a Monday, beginning in 1971. All 50 states observe the holiday.]


A Ballad for Memorial Day

By Mary Bradley

Fredericksburg had had her fray,
And the armies stood at bay;
Back of wall, and top of hill,
Union men and men in gray
Glowered at each other still.

In the space between the two
Many a hapless boy in blue
Lay face upward to the skies;
Many another, just as true,
Filled the air with frantic cries.

“Love of God!” with pity stirred,
Cried a rebel lad who heard.
“This is more than I can bear!
General, only say the word,
They shall have some water there.”

“What’s the use?” his general,
Frowning, asked. “A Yankee ball
Drops you dead, or worse, half way,
Once you go beyond the wall.”
“May be!” said the boy in gray.

“Still I’ll risk it, if you please.”
And the senior, ill at ease,
Nodded, growling under breath,
“For his mortal enemies
I have sent the lad to death.”

Then a hotter fire began
As across the field he ran,—
Yankee shooters marked a prey,—
But beside each wounded man
Heedless knelt the boy in gray.

Parched lips hailed him as he came;
Throats with fever all aflame,
While the balls were spinning by,
Drained the cup he offered them,
Blessed him with their dying cry.

Suddenly, through rain of those
Pattering shots, a shout uprose;
Din of voices filled his ears;
Firing ceased, and eager foes
Made the welkin ring with cheers.

Foes they were, of bitter need,
Still to every noble deed
Hearts of men, thank God, must thrill;
And we thrill, too, as we read
Of those cheers on Marye’s Hill.

Days of battle long since done,
Days of peace and blessing won,
Better is it to forget
Cruel work of sword and gun:
But some deeds are treasures yet.

While a grateful nation showers
Graves of heroes with her flowers,
Here’s a wreath for one to-day:
North or South, we claim him ours—
Honor to the Boy in Gray!

This Article is an Excerpt from Our American Holidays: Their Meaning and Spirit, as retold within the pages of St. Nicholas Magazine, which is available from Better Days Books in quality hardcover, sturdy trade paperback and convenient .PDF e-book download editions, starting at just $3.95.

Our American Holidays: Their Meaning and Spirit was originally published in 1906, and is at once a heartwarming reminiscence on the Victorian Era in America and a reminder of the inspiration and delight our most beloved Traditional holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving Day, Easter, Halloween – as well as the national identity and pride our uniquely American holidays – Independence Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington – can still hold for us today. Compiled from the pages of St. Nicholas Magazine, a popular turn of the Century publication for youth ages five to eighteen, Our American Holidays: Their Meaning and Spirit is an ideal resource for reclaiming the original, uncommercialized significance and character of every American holiday for ourselves, and for sharing that vision, inspiration and delight with the children we love.


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