Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead”.
While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860’s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.
It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.
In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program).
And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
Washington, DC is also home to two more ‘celebrations’ of Memorial Day; each special in it’s own way. I have been lucky enough to attend both, so I have a point of reference for each.
First is the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. This is traditionally done by the President if available, and is a very solemn occasion, with a myriad of official and military guests, including a large number of veterans.
This photo, courtesy of the DOD, shows a Tomb Guard marching his post in front of the wreath and tomb. Today, President Bush delivered an excellent speech after he assisted in placing of the wreath.
The second is called Rolling Thunder, and is a memorial, celebration and political pressure group to bring our POW’s remains home. It is normally the Sunday before Memorial Day, and has been going on for 21 years now. Yesterday, over 100,000, yes one hundred thousand motorcycles of all descriptions started lining up at the Pentagon North Parking lot well before sunrise. They were there to participate in the ride to the reflecting pool and parade across the Memorial Bridge and by the Vietnam memorial. This one is by turns solemn, raucous, funny, poignant, and sometimes startling. Yesterday, a SSGT Chambers stood in his Marine Dress uniform for over 4 hours, saluting the riders as they came by his location.
These folks come from all over the US and it’s territories to ride in rememberance of their fallen Vietnam comrades and it has become something quite a bit more than a bunch of dirty old motorcycle guys causing trouble, which is the way it was originally percieved in 1987.
Now it is for many, a tradition, they come hell or high water ( and this year tornados and hail in the Midwest), but the ride on in to ride yesterday and start the long ride home today or tomorrow.
I talked to two couples in their 60’s from Western Idaho who have made this “pilgrimage” as they call it for 16 years. Both the men are former Army Rangers, who use their entire yearly vacation for the trip. Neither one of the wives had ANY problem with it, and have been riding with them for the last 10 years. All of them are VERY proud of the kids today, and thankful they are being treated better than we were after nam.
Enjoy your Memorial Day, but take a minute to reflect on those Servicemen and women who gave their lives over the years so that you HAVE that Freedom today.
Some say this is not true, but I believe it is!
POW’s / MIA’s YOU WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN
It was the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves under the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.
That is all.