Poppies shooting up in my garden are almost—not quite—in time for Memorial Day. Since its origins in the American Civil War, this holiday to honor those who died in military service has combined flowers with the sung, spoken, or written word.
John Brown’s body. At the war’s end in April 1865, former slaves in South Carolina exhumed Union soldiers from a prison camp mass grave for reburial. Then in May, ten thousand former slaves paraded at the camp, including members of black Union regiments. Children holding bouquets sang the abolitionist battle hymn, “John Brown’s Body.”
General John Logan’s proclamation. Decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers was common during and after the Civil War. In 1868, Logan called on Union veterans everywhere to strew blossoms on their fallen comrades’ graves on May 30. By 1890, Decoration Day was an official holiday in every Northern state, with similar observances on other dates across the South.
War after war. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow // Between the crosses, row on row.” After World War I, Decoration Day was extended to military personnel killed in all wars, observed on May 30 nationwide. During yet another bloody war, in 1967, it became a federal holiday under the name “Memorial Day.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.