In a speech to the Abraham Lincoln Post of the GAR in New York City on Decoration Day, 1878, the black civil rights leader Frederick Douglass made it clear why the “certain forgetfulness” called for by critics of Decoration Day was unacceptable. He acknowledged that the day’s detractors “would have us forget and forgive” and “strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and loyal graves.” But, he continued, “there was a right side and a wrong side” in the Civil War. Douglass explained that in order to understand the significance of Decoration Day, one had to examine “the moral character of the war” which he said was “a war of ideas” and “a battle of principles.”
|Frederick Douglass. Library of Congress.|
According to Douglass, the Civil War was not only a war between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization,” it was also a war “between a government based upon the grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold, and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.”
As the rest of the 19th century wound down following Douglass’s speech, so too did his notion that human rights had defeated the right of the strongest in the Civil War. Instead, the “certain forgetfulness” that the Times had recommended began to affect the nation’s memory. Racial segregation became the legal norm throughout the U.S., more wars were fought, and the significance of Decoration Day, as Douglass had seen it, changed—as did its name and place on the calendar!
On May 23, 1873, Governor John A. Dix issued a proclamation stating that the New York legislature had made May 30, known as Decoration Day, a legal holiday. Library of Congress.
By May 30, 1919, as a result of World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars and soon “Decoration Day” became “Memorial Day.” In 1971, Congress changed the date chosen by the GAR to celebrate the day, May 30, to “the last Monday in May” in order to give federal employees a three-day holiday.
Today, speeches about the moral character of the Civil War are rarely given. The grass in Carl Sandburg’s poem of the same name has done its work—it has covered all.