The history of Memorial Day is a somewhat contentious one, as it intersects with concerns of commercialism, family, and American military history. Given that we as Americans are often a somewhat forgetful society when it comes to our past, it is ironic that we should have such contention over a day that is explicitly and openly about historical memory. The festival we know as Memorial Day has a history that goes back nearly 150 years, to the time after the American Civil War, and its earliest controversies dealt with precisely that issue, a matter that still divides Americans to this day . In briefly detaling the history of Memorial Day, let us comment upon the various controversies that have occurred as a result of this focus on memory and what it means.
On May 30, 1868, three years after the successful end of the Civil War, Decoration Day (which later became known as Memorial Day) was proclaimed by General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (which was made up of the Union Veterans of the American Civil War). Within five years the holiday started being recognized by Northern States. It is noteworthy that Southern States refused to recognize the day at first, even though the first Decoration Day events honored the dead of both the worthier and unworthy causes of the American Civil War, a show of undeserved honor to some that ought to have been recognized and appreciated, especially in light of the passions of the times.
Even though those who seek to honor the original historical intent of Memorial Day believe in the holiday that it is a source of great reconciliation, that has not traditionally been the result. We may honor the intent for unity and harmony even where its practice and existence is absent or threatened. It is worthy to note, however, that many Southern states still have separate days (though not listed on public calendars, it would appear) to honor the Confederate War Dead . It was not until after World War I, when massive war dead from the brutal Western Front in France and Belgium expanded the purpose of the day from honoring the Civil War dead to honoring the war dead in general, that Southern states started recognizing Memorial Day at all. Fairly quickly the day expanded from honoring war dead to tending to the graves of family members in general, which then led the day to become a day of family picnics as a show of family unity, a purpose that has endured to the present day.
Of course, in 1971 the day was moved from May 30th to the last Monday in May, as a way of providing a guaranteed three-day weekend. Depending on one’s source of information, knowledge and public recognition of the meaning of Memorial Day can be a bit limited. I happen to come from a family whose traditions of civic duty have led to the early deaths of several family members. One of my own ancestors, for example, died in the American Civil War , and two others had their lives greatly shortened and harmed by being gassed in World War I in the trenches there. Therefore, the meaning of this particular day has a great deal of personal relevance to me as I remember the noble deeds of my own ancestors and the sacrifices they gave for the unity and freedom of this nation. I am also generally pleased to see the same sort of patriotism and memory on the part of many of my friends and acquiantances online, a welcome respite from the endless advertisements that seek to turn Memorial Day into a day of mere commerce.
Even more so than the history of Memorial Day, it is the commercialization of the day that causes as great deal of current division and controversy. For while family picnics and the tasteful and proper tending and decoration of family or veterans’ graves is a deeply honorable action, it is not a sufficiently lucrative business to satisfy the tastes of our culture’s commercial interests. No, instead Memorial Day, if it is to be highly promoted in this day and age, must be a day to sell cars and matresses and furniture and the accoutrements of Summer (even if it is not necessarily summer-like weather outside). It is to be lamented that in our day and time it is not enough simply to honor those who came before us, to reflect upon their deeds and to seek to learn from them and show the same kind of nobility and valor ourselves in our present age. No, we feel the need to sell something as well. Perhaps that too will be remembered by future generations who may shake their heads at our folly just as we do at the follies of bygone days.
 For example: January 19th is the day for the honor of the Confederate war dead of Texas, April 26th for those of Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, May 10th for those of South Carolina, and June 3rd (the birthday of Jefferson Davis) for those of Tennessee and Louisiana. In light of current cultural trends, it is not surprising that these days to honor the Confederate war dead of the American Civil War are not well known.