The real meaning of Memorial Day isn't just about the military — it's about forgiveness.

In the years following the bitter Civil War, a former Union general took a holiday originated by former Confederates and helped spread it across the entire country.

The holiday was Memorial Day, and the 2018 commemoration on May 28 marks the 150th anniversary of its official nationwide observance. The annual commemoration was born in the former Confederate States in 1866 and adopted by the United States in 1868. It is a holiday in which the nation honors its military dead.

Gen. John A. Logan, who headed the largest Union veterans fraternity at that time, the Grand Army of the Republic, is usually credited as being the originator of the holiday.


Civil War Union Gen. John A. Logan. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Yet when Logan established the holiday, he acknowledged its genesis among the Union's former enemies, saying, "It was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South."

Cities and towns across America have for more than a century claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

But I and my co-author Daniel Bellware have sifted through the myths and half-truths and uncovered the authentic story of how this holiday came into being.

During 1866, the first year Memorial Day was observed in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that made awareness, admiration and eventually imitation of it spread quickly to the North.

During the inaugural Memorial Day observances in Columbus, Georgia, many Southern participants — especially women — decorated graves of Confederate soldiers as well as those of their former enemies who fought for the Union.

Shortly after those first Memorial Day observances all across the South, newspaper coverage in the North was highly favorable to the ex-Confederates.

"The action of the ladies on this occasion, in burying whatever animosities or ill-feeling may have been engendered in the late war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and commendation," wrote one paper.

On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Leader lauded the Southern women during their first Memorial Day.

"The act was as beautiful as it was unselfish, and will be appreciated in the North."

The New York Commercial Advertiser, recognizing the magnanimous deeds of the women of Columbus, echoed the sentiment. "Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation."

To be sure, this sentiment was not unanimous. There were many in both parts of the U.S. who had no interest in conciliation.

But as a result of one of these news reports, Francis Miles Finch, a Northern judge, academic and poet, wrote a poem titled "The Blue and the Gray." Finch's poem quickly became part of the American literary canon. He explained what inspired him to write it:

"It struck me that the South was holding out a friendly hand, and that it was our duty, not only as conquerors, but as men and their fellow citizens of the nation, to grasp it."

Finch's poem seemed to extend a full pardon to the South: "They banish our anger forever when they laurel the graves of our dead" was one of the lines.

Almost immediately, the poem circulated across America in books, magazines and newspapers. By the end of the 19th century, school children everywhere were required to memorize Finch's poem.

Not just poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress.

As Finch's poem circulated the country, the Southern Memorial Day holiday became a familiar phenomenon throughout America.

Logan was aware of the forgiving sentiments of people like Finch. When Logan's order establishing Memorial Day was published in various newspapers in May 1868, Finch's poem was sometimes appended to the order.

It was not long before Northerners decided that they would not only adopt the Southern custom of Memorial Day, but also the Southern custom of "burying the hatchet."

A group of Union veterans explained their intentions in a letter to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on May 28, 1869:

"Wishing to bury forever the harsh feelings engendered by the war, Post 19 has decided not to pass by the graves of the Confederates sleeping in our lines, but divide each year between the blue and the grey the first floral offerings of a common country. We have no powerless foes. Post 19 thinks of the Southern dead only as brave men."

Other reports of reciprocal magnanimity circulated in the North, including the gesture of a 10-year-old who made a wreath of flowers and sent it to the overseer of the holiday, a Col. Leaming in Lafayette, Indiana, with the following note attached, published in The New Hampshire Patriot on July 15, 1868:

"Will you please put this wreath upon some rebel soldier’s grave? My dear papa is buried at Andersonville, (Georgia) and perhaps some little girl will be kind enough to put a few flowers upon his grave."

Although not known by many today, the early evolution of the Memorial Day holiday was a manifestation of Abraham Lincoln's hope for reconciliation between North and South.

Lincoln's wish was that there be "malice toward none" and "charity for all." These wishes were clearly fulfilled in the magnanimous actions of citizens on both sides, who extended an olive branch during those very first Memorial Day observances.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation and is printed here with permission.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.