“Decoration Day” is the real name for today – not Memorial Day. “Decoration,” the act of placing medals, ribbons, flowers on graves, comes from the holiday’s beginnings at the end of the Civil War, when almost everyone had lost someone they loved and some wanted the day to also celebrate the end of slavery, the cause for which so many had died. It was renamed Memorial Day in an effort to increase its mass appeal, the first step perhaps to now when we might as well call it Barbecue Day.

For a lot of my friends and colleagues, it still is Decoration Day: veterans whose Facebook profile photos are of their lost battle buddies, journalists making sure the newest war lost are properly accounted for,  or those like WVFC’s Lily Casura who work with veterans in distress. I met many of them while working on a book just now going to press, about soldiers and dissent from 1754 to 2011. This Decoration Day, I thought I’d mention a few of the women who knew and enacted the meaning of this day in their lives — some doing so right now, some from long ago. While most of us won’t be at a military grave today, we can honor women who have never let themselves forget how that feels.

Josephine Shaw Lowell was 19 years old in 1863 when she went into mourning, after the death of her brother Col. Charles Gould Shaw.  Afterward Lowell volunteered in the camp hospital in Vienna, Va., where her husband, Col. Charley Lowell, was in charge of the defense of the capital. “I remember you as a young wife in Vienna,” one of Charley’s soldiers wrote years later, “[going] down to the tavern used as a hospital near the railroad track.” She never went out of mourning — and 25 years later, became an anti-war activist when the U.S. invaded the Philippines in 1889. Above right, the memorial Lowell helped dedicate to her brother, the commander of the renowned Massachussetts 54th Infantry Volunteers. Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon,   who like Myrtle Vacirca joined the Women’s Army Corps during World War II — as a way of reinventing herself after a divorce. When it began, “more than 13,000 women applied for a few hundred position. Many of them were greeted at recruiting stations by crowds of jeering men and shouts of Are you one of them Wackies.” After years in intelligence, she reinvented herself yet again — protesting the war in Vietnam and becoming an acclaimed writer whose stories included “The Women Men Don’t See.” Lt. Susan Schnall, now a public health administrator, was in 1967 a Navy nurse at Oak Knoll hospital in Oakland, Calif., which kept receiving mass casualties from the war in Vietnam. She talked to me last year about how over time, she grew angry at being ordered to patch soldiers up only so they could go back to the fight. And in October 1968, Schnall and some like-minded co-workers rented a plane and dropped anti-war leaflets on military bases up and down the coast. After her court-martial, Schnall became involved in the fight to get redress for victims of Agent Orange, in Vietnam and veterans’ hospitals. Capt. Anuradha Baghwati, the second woman to complete the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program instructor trainer school, is the co-founder and executive director of Service Women’s Action Network. She co-founded SWAN in response to the rampant discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault experienced by women in the military, and the lack of respect and resources given to women veterans after service. Her leadership has inspired a national movement to end military rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence, and to eliminate all barriers to equal opportunity for servicewomen. The president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, below, is actually the first I thought of when I started thinking about this day. In her book The Republic of Suffering, she documents the years in which Decoration Day became Memorial Day, after 20 years the nation had spent burying its dead. Below, she talks about the book and how memory shapes our lives.



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  • Alexsandra Stewart May 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Funny that you should write about Decoration Day. Just this morning I was thinking about that name and the past. When I was married, we visited his grandparents and aunts in Missouri, and went to the cemetery to decorate the graves. They’d cleaned them up, trimmed the grass and placed flowers on each. Afterwards we had a picnic: fried chicken, potato salad, soft white rolls, lemonade. It was an odd custom to me, purely southern somehow, as I’d never had a picnic in a cemetery before and never before decorated a grave in remembrance of dead relatives. I remember when the name changed. The name Memorial Day has never had the same cadence for me. Today though I found myself wondering if I should go up to the cemeteries where my folks are buried, and leave a few roses. Would I see people having a picnic? Some oldtimers, perhaps?