The first weekend of summer: the first “official” cookout in the back year; wreath-laying ceremonies, a day off from work, the Indianapolis 500…all these things can only mean one thing – Memorial Day is here! At the shore, this weekend has special significance because it is the official beginning of summer – many businesses open up, the beaches start to get crowded and Cape May fills with summer visitors. But in the years following the Civil War, this holiday had a more somber significance.
The first ceremonies that led to the establishment of “Decoration Day” were privately-held remembrances for soldiers who died in the Civil War. It is not clear exactly where or when the first such ceremony took place. It was the women of a community who created floral decorations (hence the original name of the holiday) to lay on the graves of the men who died in battle. These spontaneous gestures of remembrance took place in towns of both the North and South as early as 1864.
The day became one of ceremony and ritual. In many small towns, citizens gathered in the cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of the war dead. This was followed by patriotic orations, perhaps a parade to honor the community’s veterans, and then a picnic on the town common. In Columbus, Georgia, in 1866, a women’s memorial association did the most, perhaps, to nationally popularize the idea of laying flowers on soldier’s graves. They placed decorations on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Their impartial tribute prompted an editorial in the New York Tribune, and also inspired a poem, “The Blue and The Grey, by Francis Miles Finch, which appeared in Atlantic Monthly magazine in September of 1867. Its sentiment swept the country.
The Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans, declared the first national Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. It was then that Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant began the tradition of holding a memorial ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery which continues today, each Memorial Day, when the President lays a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
In the decades following the Civil War, observances of Decoration Day spread throughout the entire country. As time passed and other wars brought new casualties, the holiday’s significance expanded to include the memorializing of the soldiers lost in each war. In 1968, President Johnson signed legislation shifting the dates of certain holidays, including Memorial Day, to create three-day weekends, which is why the holiday is always on the last Monday in May.
Residents of Victorian Cape May also participated in annual Decoration Day ceremonies. The local newspaper, the Cape May Wave, reported on these events every year. In 1886, a train was chartered to run from Grant Street Station in Cape May City to Cape May Court House, with stops in between at the cemeteries at Cold Spring and Tabernacle. These stops included short memorial orations by local officials. At each cemetery, floral wreaths and garlands were laid on the graves of the Civil War soldiers. At the Courthouse building, a local minister and lawyer gave patriotic speeches. The newspaper reported that the orators “Breathe[d] the true spirit of loyalty and devotion to the fallen heroes of the nation and the principles for which they gave up their lives (June 5, 1886, p.3). Heavy rains cut short some of the activities in 1886, but in 1887, the newspaper reported that “Decoration Day this year will be more generally observed than ever before.”
So, while you’re enjoying your three-day welcome to summer in Cape May, please join with residents and visitors to observe the holiday’s original, and true, purpose.