“The Lesson of Decoration Day” Saturday Evening Post, 30 May 1903, p. 12.

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“The Lesson of Decoration Day” Saturday Evening Post, 30 May 1903, p. 12.


Civil War; decoration day; war memorials


“The Lesson of Decoration Day” Saturday Evening Post, 30 May 1903, p. 12.


DECORATION DAY, as we have it now, is one of those popular customs which, like Jonah's gourd, have grown so fast and into such huge proportions that we have almost forgotten why the seeds of them were planted in the first place.[1] Soon after the close of the Civil War a few sorrowing Southern women met one May day in a little village churchyard to lay flowers upon the graves of some men who were dear to them, and who had given their lives in vain for a cause which was lost. The idea quickly spread through both the South and North. The next year in many a village and town flowers were laid tenderly on the graves of the dead of both armies. Then military ceremonies were added, and by degrees orations more or less political became a feature of the day. Now the observance of the day is national; there is probably not a city or hamlet from one ocean to the other which does not thus honor its dead soldiers. Flowers and flags are laid also upon the graves of the heroes of the Revolutionary, the Mexican and the Spanish wars. This is right.

But isn't there something narrow in this purely military annual ceremony? If it is good for us once a year

"With uncovered head

To salute the sacred dead,"[2]

why limit our homage only to those who died on the battlefield? Heroic blood throbs in brave hearts underneath the workman’s grimy coat or the engineer's sooty jacket or even the calico gown of a half-starved woman, as often as under gilt braids and buttons.

We do not grudge a tear or a flower to the dead soldier. But why should we not also recognize the hero in the grave of the physician who risked his life for his patients every day; or the just judge who for many years taught a community the meaning of probity and honor, who left his children poor but died with hands clean of a bribe; or the inventor who spent his strength in perfecting a discovery which has widened and lightened all of our lives; or the man who has put his own pain and struggle into a book which has made life higher for us; or the poor obscure clergyman who starved body and soul and counted nothing lost if he might bring some lost wretch nearer to God? Surely these men have also served their kind and their country, and deserve some recognition at their hands.

In France, once a year, in every village the graves of those who were worthy and loved in life are heaped with flowers. This is the immortality which the poor give to their nameless heroes.

In Cornwall, in an old hamlet where King Arthur was born, there are a few graves on a wind-blown hill, and there forty years ago was buried an Italian sailor who gave his life to save his crew. Forty years ago, yet every year on All Saints’ Day the villagers have laid a crown of evergreen on his grave.[3]

ls there no lofty lesson of bravery and love taught in that poor wreath?

Do we wish to teach our boys on Decoration Day that there is no way for them to serve their country or their kind but by shooting or being shot?

Cannot the lesson be widened and lifted a little?

[1] For an account of Jonah’s gourd, see Jonah 4.6 (King James Version). Decoration Day originated in the late 1860s to honor Civil War dead and became a federal holiday in 1871.

[2] Inscription on the “Melvin Memorial: Mourning Victory,” designed by American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) to honor the Melvin brothers, who died in the Civil War. Commissioned in 1897 and dedicated in 1909, the memorial is located in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

[3] All Saint’s Day, now celebrated on November 1, is a Christian tradition to honor saints and martyrs.


Alicia Mischa Renfroe


Updated April 1, 2021



Alicia Mischa Renfroe, ““The Lesson of Decoration Day” Saturday Evening Post, 30 May 1903, p. 12.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed November 27, 2022, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/221.

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