The month of May hosts two well-observed national holidays in the 21st-century United States: the second Sunday is Mother’s Day, and the last Monday is Memorial Day.
There will be no story about Mother’s Day; it’s too new (but see the box). Nor will your writer trouble you with details about the many other May holidays listed on line.
May 11, for example, is National Eat What You Want Day, National Twilight Zone Day, National Foam Rolling Day and National Technology Day. The seven May 12 observances include National Limerick Day, National Nutty Fudge Day and National Odometer Day.
Later in the month, those so inclined can celebrate National Frog Jumping Day and National Fruit Cocktail Day (May 13); National Sea Monkey Day (May 16); Pack Rat Day and World Baking Day (May 17); International Red Sneakers Day and World Bee Day (May 20); World Turtle Day and National Asparagus Day (May 23); National Paper Airplane Day and World Lindy Hop Day (May 26); National Paperclip Day (May 29); and on May 31, National Flip-Flop Day, World No Tobacco Day and World Otter Day – and those are from only two lists.
Memorial Day, celebrated this year on Monday, May 29, had its origins almost 150 years ago. The day was first called Decoration Day, and it honored soldiers who died in the Civil War.
Local groups in former Confederate states and in Pennsylvania started putting flowers on soldiers’ graves each year soon after the war ended in April 1865, leading to debate about who started what became national recognition of deceased veterans.
Wikipedia says as of last year, the National Cemetery Administration (part of the Department of Veterans Affairs) gave credit to Mary Ann (Mrs. Charles J.) Williams, of Columbus, Georgia. She was president of a group who, in March 1866, began a newspaper campaign to persuade people to decorate both Confederate and Union soldiers’ graves in the South. Their chosen day was April 26.
The national holiday began May 30, 1868, when, Wikipedia says, General John A. Logan called for decorating Union soldiers’ graves. After the 20th-century world wars, the holiday expanded to honor all veterans.
Congress officially named it Memorial Day in 1967, and in June 1968 passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, effective Jan. 1, 1971. This law moved Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day to Mondays and created Columbus Day as another Monday holiday.
(In 1978, Veterans’ Day was moved back to Nov. 11, the date World War I ended. Labor Day was a Monday celebration before 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was added in 1986.)
General Logan was in 1868 commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans founded in 1866 in Springfield, Illinois. The GAR held its first national meeting on Nov. 20 that year in Indianapolis, Indiana. It dissolved in 1956, after its last member died.
Several local town historians included information about Memorial Day. Linwood Lowden, commenting on his research in the history of Windsor, said that Decoration Day, Independence Day and Christmas were “the holidays that seemed to be of the greatest importance.”
Lowden wrote that the GAR’s Department of Maine, established in 1867 or 1868, was “instrumental” in persuading the Maine legislature to make Memorial Day a legal holiday in 1874.
Two on-line sources say that in 1885 Maine had 130 GAR posts with 8,235 members and in 1888 150 posts with 9,345 members. It was in June 1885 that Portland hosted the 19th National Encampment, attended by 20,000 Civil War veterans including, Lowden wrote, Abram Choate, of Windsor.
From the 1860s into the 20th century, most municipal Memorial Day celebrations were led by local GAR posts.
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Waterville’s W. S. Heath Post #14 was chartered Dec. 29, 1874, with 26 members, according to charter member General Isaac Sparrow Bangs’ chapter in the Waterville centennial history.
The Post’s name honors Lieutenant Colonel William Solyman Heath, Colby 1855. Born March 13, 1834, in Belfast, he married Maria E. Moor (born 1838) in Waterville in 1856, soon after he graduated from Colby.
The couple had three children, Ethel Maud Heath (born Sept. 1, 1857, in Minneapolis, according to an on-line genealogy, and died in 1898 in the state of Washington); Sidney Moor Heath (born Aug. 27, 1859, in Waterville, died April 3, 1919, in Hoquiam, Washington); and William Francis Heath (born Oct. 13, 1861, in Waterville, and died there April 26, 1863).
When the Civil War began, Heath raised and captained a company of Waterville volunteers, who joined the 3rd Maine Volunteers. He became a colonel in that regiment and later a lieutenant-colonel in the 5th Maine.
Heath was killed in the June 27, 1862, Battle of Gaines (or Gaine’s or Gaines’) Mill in Hanover County, Virginia, where, Bangs wrote in 1902, “for forty years he has slept under the grass and flowers in an unknown grave.”
Another charter member of W. S. Heath GAR post was William Heath’s younger brother, Francis “Frank” Edward Heath, Colby 1858. Joining the 3rd Maine with his brother, he later became lieutenant-colonel, then colonel and finally brevet brigadier-general in the 19th Maine, Bangs wrote. Francis Heath survived the war and died in Waterville on Dec. 20, 1897.
The Friday, June 3, 1881, issue of the Waterville Mail (available on-line through Colby’s digital commons, which your writer has previously praised as a valuable resource) had several articles about Memorial Day observances on Sunday, May 29, and Monday, May 30, 1881.
Sunday evening, the newspaper reported, Baptist church pastor Rev. W. H. Spencer addressed Waterville’s W. S. Heath GAR Post, the Waterville Light Infantry and interested residents. Vassalboro’s R. W. Mullen Post members were invited, but because of rain only a few men came.
Post and infantry members “marched to the tap of the drum” to the church, where they sat “giving good attention to a soldier speaking to soldiers.” The paper explained how Rev. Spencer compared military soldiers to soldiers of Christ.
The next day, Memorial Day, about 50 Post members, again escorted by the infantry regiment, took donated wreaths and set out for Pine Grove Cemetery, by way of Monument Park where they put a long wreath on the monument.
Monday was rainy, too, and before the veterans got to the cemetery a “copious shower” made it “advisable to double-quick for shelter in the hearse house.” After waiting out the heaviest rain, they went into the cemetery, heard a prayer by Congregational pastor Rev. E. N. Smith, distributed the wreaths and marched back to their (unspecified) assembly point.
Monday evening, the Baptist Church ladies put on a program that raised $104 for the Post, to be used “to aid needy soldiers and their families.” The Mail gave the program, which included war songs, reminiscences and a group of young women performing the “Waiters Drill,” which the anonymous writer said was “so prettily done, and so gratifying to the large audience that long continued applause compelled its repetition.”
After the program, those present enjoyed cake and ice cream and conversation in the vestry, decorated with flags and pictures and with war memorabilia on display. The writer added a bit of editorializing:
“The ranks of the veteran soldiers are thinning every year, and they will not long remain with those for whose benefit they fought and suffered. Do them good while they are alive and can appreciate your grateful service, and do not content yourselves with building monuments to their memory, or helping to decorate their graves after they are dead.”
The origin of Mother’s Day
Wikipedia dates holidays recognizing mothers and motherhood to the ancient Greeks and Romans and early Christians. In the United States, Wikipedia credits West Virginian Anna Maria Jarvis (May 1, 1864 – Nov. 24, 1948) with starting Mother’s Day observances.
Jarvis’s mother, Anna Maria (Reeves) Jarvis (Sept. 30, 1832 – May 9, 1905), founded groups called Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Before the Civil War, club members focused on public health issues, helping families improve sanitation, reduce infant mortality and control disease, including, Wikipedia says, creating milk inspection programs “long before there were state requirements.”
During the Civil War, the western part of Virginia where the Jarvises lived was so split between North and South that part of it became the separate, pro-Union state of West Virginia. The older Anna Jarvis insisted that her clubs be neutral; members helped provide food, clothing and medical care to Union and Confederate soldiers alike.
Wikipedia describes the 1868 Mothers Friendship Day she organized in Pruntytown, West Virginia, attended by veterans from both armies and their families, with bands playing Dixie and The Star-Spangled Banner and everyone singing Auld Lang Syne at the end.
The younger Anna Jarvis remembered that her mother often wished there were a national holiday honoring mothers. Another proponent was Julia Ward Howe (May 27, 1819 – Oct. 17, 1910, best known as the author of The Battle Hymn of Republic), who in 1870 combined two causes when she called on all mothers to cooperate to promote peaceful resolution of disputes.
On the morning of May 10, 1908, Jarvis organized, and Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church, in Grafton, West Virginia, hosted, the first public Mother’s Day celebration in the United States. Jarvis also organized a larger celebration – 15,000 attendees, Wikipedia says – that afternoon in Philadelphia.
Her idea spread, and she lobbied to make the day a nationally-recognized holiday. Congress considered it in 1908, Wikipedia says, and rejected it amid jokes about Mother-in-Laws’ Day. Within three years, however, a day honoring mothers was celebrated nation-wide and was officially a holiday in some states, including West Virginia.
Wikipedia says: “In 1912, Anna Jarvis trademarked the phrase ‘Second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis, Founder’ and created the Mother’s Day International Association…. She specifically noted that ‘Mother’s’ should ‘be a singular possessive, for each family to honor its own mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.'”
On May 11, 1913, members of the United States House of Representatives wore white carnations in honor of mothers, complying with a May 10 resolution sponsored by Representative James Heflin (D-Alabama; later a United States Senator). In 1914, Heflin followed up with legislation making the second Sunday in May officially Mother’s Day.
Heflin’s bill directed that the United States flag be flown on Mother’s Day “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” The House approved promptly; Senator (former Representative) Morris Sheppard (D-Texas) led Senate supporters.
President Woodrow Wilson received the bill on May 8, 1914, and signed it that day.
Carnations are not in the law, but remain associated with the holiday, along with cards, flowers and candy – a commercialization that Anna Jarvis deplored.
Two buildings related to the founding of Mother’s Day are on the National Register of Historic Places: the Anna Jarvis House in Webster, West Virginia, where Jarvis was born; and the International Mother’s Day Shrine, at 11 East Main Street, Grafton, West Virginia.
The Shrine, according to its website, was incorporated in 1962 in the 1873 Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church as “an international shrine to all mothers and as a memorial to Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day.”
Kingsbury, Henry D., ed., Illustrated History of Kennebec County Maine 1625-1892 (1892).
Lowden, Linwood H., good Land & fine Contrey but Poor roads a history of Windsor, Maine (1993).
Whittemore, Rev. Edwin Carey, Centennial History of Waterville 1802-1902 (1902).
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