In Observance of Memorial Day

May 27, 2016

Special Collections, like other units of the Libraries, will be closed on Monday, May 30, 2016. We point here to three examples — all from the Cairns Collection of American Women Writers — of the observance of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was often known, had its origins in observances decorating the graves of war dead after the Civil War. Eventually Memorial Day came to mean a day to honor all Americans who have died while in military service.

In 1870, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, a musical score with words by Mary B. C. Slade used the term “Soldiers’ Memorial day” for the day  (May 30th, in fact) “set apart for strewing flowers over the graves of the noble heroes who fell in the late struggle for the preservation of the Union” (call number: Cairns Score Slade flat).

“Soldiers’ Memorial day.” Score from the Cairns Collection, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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In 1885 Kate Brownlee Sherwood (1841-1914) brought out a volume of poetry entitled Camp-fire, Memorial-day, and other poems (call number: Cairns Y SH58 C Cutter). “… I bring these simple recitals of fealty and valor in Honor of the Living and in reverent Memory of the Dead, and lay them on the altar of my country —reunited, regenerated, and at peace.” The work, printed by R. R. Donnelley & Sons, The Lakeside Press (Chicago), included such poems as “The nation’s memorial,” “For his dear sake,” “The boy hero’s mother,” and “Twenty years ago.” As shown here, the title on the publisher’s binding reads “Camp-fire and memorial poems”:

Kate Brownlee Sherwood. Cover of Camp-fire, Memorial-day, and other poems (1885). From the Cairns Collection.
Kate Brownlee Sherwood. Cover of Camp-fire, Memorial-day, and other poems (1885). From the Cairns Collection.

By 1910, Marguerite Merington (1857-1951) combined five one-act pieces, all with a patriotic message, into a volume called Holiday plays. Our copy (call number: VUPP M54 Cutter) was printed in 1919, following the end of World War I. The last of the five plays, entitled “The Dulce et Decorum Club. A Memorial Day play,” was set on Memorial Day, with a cast of boys and girls and two disabled soldiers, one who had fought for the Union, the other, for the Confederacy.

Beginning of Marguerite Merington's play, "The Dulce et Decorum Club." From her Holiday plays (printed 1919), Cairns Collection.
Beginning of Marguerite Merington’s play, “The Dulce et Decorum Club.” From her Holiday plays (printed 1919), Cairns Collection.

In the final scene, the cast, united at last “for the world’s peace,” all fell “into line, the two old soldiers walking together, and march[ed] off to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.”