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“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan,” he wrote in his order to organize such a day.In 1868, some 5,000 people responded to his call by visiting the then-new Arlington National Cemetery on the appointed day, to hear future President James Garfield deliver an address on the “immortal” virtue of the war dead and the decorate the graves of the soldiers buried there with flags and flowers.Decoration Day was thus an unusual respite in their schedules, an opportunity for sports fans to attend afternoon games or for families to take excursions to beaches like Coney Island.It soon became common practice to split the difference on Memorial Day, visiting a cemetery in the morning and then relaxing in the afternoon.For some people the day leaned more to one than the other, but when Warner was observing it in the 1940s and ’50s, Memorial Day — including its more somber aspects — was still a shared ritual for Americans.It was in the decades that followed, at least for those without a personal connection to the military, that the memorial aspects faded even more, as did many of the objections to that shift.In 1889 the Grand Army of the Republic noted the “growing tendency to make Memorial Day an occasion for festivity and indulgence in games and sports foreign to the purpose of the day and the sacred spirit which ought to characterize it” during their annual meeting, and decried the “indulgence in public sports, pastimes and all amusements on Memorial Day as inconsistent with the proper purposes of the day.” In Chicago in 1896, Rev. None of that naysaying seemed to have much effect on how people spent their Memorial Days.
The country had become fragmented about what it meant for an American soldier to die, and the purpose of war in general.
The original vision for the day, as expressed by Union General John A.
Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a powerful national veterans association of Union soldiers, emphasized honor and dignity.
But, as Albanese pointed out, the changing way of marking Memorial Day wasn’t a sign of the day’s imminent end, or of moral degeneracy or the collapse of American unity.
Rather, she wrote, it’s natural for social conditions to evolve, and for observances to ebb and flow in their meaning.