The late nineteenth century was a time of labor unrest in the United States and in much of the Western world. A holiday to honor workers had been recognized in many states. In 1894 legislation was rushed through Congress creating a national labor day holiday on the first Monday in September. This was a small step in separating the American labor movement from socialist and proto-Communist movements with their May Day observations. Ironically, Cleveland signed the legislation on June 28, 1894 in the wake of the violent, on both sides, national Pullman strike which would take several lives. A nervous Congress passed the legislation in six days, which is close to a miracle of swiftness where Congress is concerned. The new holiday quickly became a hit, with picnic lunches and ball games featuring a farewell to Summer. Americans have a genius for taking events that initially divided them, the Declaration of Independence, and turning them into celebrations enjoyed by all, and Labor Day, now as American as all the hot dogs and apple pie consumed during Labor Day weekend, is part of that tradition.
During the Civil War, the flags carried by military units had intense emotional significance for the men who fought and died under them. The flags not only symbolized the nation or state, but also stood for the units that carried them and the men who bled in their defense. At the end of the War hundreds of captured Confederate battle flags were held by the Federal government and the victorious Union states. Objects of pride for the men who had fought for the Union, their treatment as war trophies by the victorious North was a sore point in the vanquished South.
In 1887 Grover Cleveland was President. The first Democrat elected to hold the office since the Civil War, Cleveland was also the only non-Civil War veteran to hold the office since the end of the War. During the War he had hired a substitute to fight in his stead, a perfectly legal, albeit unheroic, method of not having to fight one’s self in the conflict.
In 1887 the Secretary of War mentioned to Cleveland that the Adjutant General of the Army had suggested that the return of the battle flags to the Southern states would be a graceful gesture that would be appreciated in the South. No doubt thinking that after more than two decades wartime passions had subsided, Cleveland ordered the return of the captured flags to the Southern governors. This was a major blunder. Continue Reading