Monday, May 25, 2020

Decoration Day to Memorial Day: Change in 1920 under World War's Shadow

In 1920 Memorial Day was very much still "Decoration Day" and oriented to the Civil War. But the shadow of the Great War, World War I, continued a change in focus. We see both ways that Memorial Day was being reconfigured in the present of 1920 as well as shifts in ways the Civil War was retrospectively understood.

Civil War Memorial in City View (November 2019):
"Erected in memory of deceased brave defenders
of our country in the civil war of 1861-1865"*
The ad packages for Memorial Day with prepared grids for local businesses featured the Gettysburg Address.

Local ad grids, with "Gettysburg speech"
 Morning paper May 30th
Afternoon paper, May 29th, both 1920
The morning paper's featured a Union soldier on a plinth, very much like ours here, and called the holiday "Decoration Day."

The afternoon paper's graphic is more interesting and layered, and uses "Memorial Day." As I read it, it shows pair of Civil War Veterans, one Union, the other Confederate, saluting each other, and preparing to salute the Doughboys marching up in formation between them.

Union and Confederate Veterans saluting, Doughboys marching
In the next issue, the editorial in the afternoon paper talked about this a little.

May 31st, 1920
From the editorial:
Not many are left in the fast-thinning ranks of those who fought in the Civil War and each year fewer and fewer of the gray-haired veterans follow the flag they love so well to scatter flowers in loving memory of departed comrades. The veterans of the Spanish-American war are still in the prime of life, while most of the thousands who gave their life for democracy abroad still rest in foreign graves.

Of the three wars, the last was the greatest and inspired by the loftiest ideals. The Civil War was fought to preserve the Union, the Spanish-American to defend the national honor, but America entered the world war not only to preserve the Union, defend the national honor, but to preserve freedom for humanity, liberate oppressed peoples and prevent future wars.

However, this Memorial Day, we must mourn the fallen ideals as well as fallen soldiers. Our citizens, soldiers and sailors performed miracles of valor to extend the Declaration of Independence to the world, but our politicians refuse to complete the program. Congress has repudiated any responsibility in the preservation of liberty abroad or the prevention of future wars. Instead of a memorial to peace we are erecting a monument to golden greed.
There's a lot there to consider, especially the disillusioned mood of futility. It's clear, though, the way it transitions attention from one war to a more recent one.

One striking element is the way that "liberate oppressed peoples" is not applied to the Civil War, but only to World War I. There's nothing about slavery here.

Compare this to the editorial from 1918. Even as it discusses transition and talks about "a new Memorial Day," it specifically calls out "the great war which gave the black man his freedom...after a bitter struggle and a fratricidal one."

May 30th, 1918
It's true it also talks unity about decorating "the graves of those who worth the grey as well as those who wore the blue," and reconciling the divided country was always a necessary task. But it is still speaks of slavery and fratricide. Tension between the two implied understandings of the Civil War might be passed over, but at least the two visions are indirectly acknowledged.

By 1920 slavery was erased. The variation over just two years might be an artifact of changing ownership or other vagaries, but I read it as telling and symptomatic of a more general shift in popular attitudes.  Understandings for both Memorial Day and the Civil War were reimagined and renewed, and one telling of the Civil War, more about Union than slavery, crowded out the other.

Administratively, the State Librarian, Cornelia Marvin, had been in charge of compiling names of those who died during World War I. ODVA, founded in 1945, didn't exist yet.

May 29th, 1920
Services focused on the recent war dead, though the Civil War was not ignored. The main event at the Armory in the afternoon focused on the recent war, but morning "ritualistic services" were observed at City View with a focus on the Civil War.

May 31st, 1920
Any changes for just one or two years are themselves not determinative, and it's tricky to try to wring too much meaning from ads and news on one day, especially in the context of the cultural project to reframe a holiday for a new war, but they do suggest longer trends, and I think we see here for Memorial Day in 1920 some context and preparation for the politics of the 1922 Governor's race. The roaring 20s didn't roar for everybody.

* It has seemed that the statue might date to 1933, but there are reasons to think it dates instead to 1905. (See this post from last Fall for more detail.)

A plaque below the statue for something dedicated in 1933
but it may commemorate a very different event

March 10th, 1905
Also, the Salem Pioneer Cemetery website has been down for a couple of weeks, and returns a "SEC_ERROR_REVOKED_CERTIFICATE" error. I don't know if this is a City of Salem or Friends of the Cemetery problem, but a certificate needs to be renewed it looks like.

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