Memorial Day: Remembering the Passed
We may celebrate Memorial Day with barbecues and beaches, but to many it has a deeper meaning.
It is a long weekend of sun-filled weather: parks and beaches littered with people eager for a taste of summer; friends and family hovering near a full spread of food overtaking a picnic table; and malls and department stores boasting their amazing sales of the season. People are happy and excited to kick off the home stretch to summer. For many, this long weekend could come no sooner and is a chance to relax and have fun.
However, for service people and their families, especially those who have lost friends and loved ones serving our country, Memorial Day carries a more solemn tone. Flying the flag at half-mast, and formal visits to cemeteries to decorate soldiers’ gravesites are common for those honoring their fallen. Memorial Day is a special, unified time for honoring those service men and women who died serving our country.
History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day’s original name was “Decoration Day,” for the practice of decorating the gravesites of fallen soldiers. While various groups had independently organized celebrations for honoring and decorating the tombs of soldiers, a more collected and formal observance of a memorial day began after the Civil War, initiated by Major General John A. Logan. Major General Logan was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union organization for veterans. He declared the observance to occur on May 30th. Some speculate that day was chosen for the guarantee of floral blooms during that time of year. It has also been said that it was chosen because no previous battles or events were tied to this date. This first major observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery. James Garfield delivered a speech to a crowd of 5,000 who helped decorate the 20,000 soldiers’ graves.
The holiday had originated as a day to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Civil War, the bloodiest battle in U.S. History. However, after WWI, the breadth expanded to honor all soldiers who died serving our country. As a distinction, Memorial Day honors those who have died serving our country, while Veterans Day honors both the living and those who have passed.
The term Memorial Day was first used in 1882, and though many states adopted the holiday, it did not become a Federal Holiday until 1971. Just prior, Decoration Day’s observance had been moved to the last Monday of May, in accordance to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
Many Veterans’ and military-affiliated groups have been lobbying to revert to its original May 30th celebration date, simply because many share the sentiment that Memorial Day has lost its intended meaning. While there are many parades, like the National Memorial Parade in D.C.; tributes and events, such as those held at Arlington National Cemetery; and ceremonies, like the beautiful wreath placement at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, many feel that the holiday’s original purpose is lost on the general public. The long weekend and its late spring observance tend to center much of the celebrations as a gateway to summer fun and shopping. By moving the holiday back to a May 30th observance, they feel its true status could be revived as a day to remember those who have passed serving our country.
Where is the Original Birthplace of Memorial Day?
Because there were quite a few unofficial memorial observances, many places like to lay claim as the original birthplace of the holiday. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, NY as the original birthplace of Memorial Day. Initially held on May 5, 1866, Waterloo’s first and subsequent celebrations involved the entire community, even closing down local businesses for the day, and encouraging people to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. New York was also officially the first state to recognize the holiday in 1873.
Despite President Johnson’s official declaration, many towns and cities still pride themselves as the original birthplace. Boalsburg, PA claims to have been the first, with traditions dating back to 1864, but more official and collective celebrations occurring in 1865 and in the years following. Other cities claiming to have the first celebrations include Carbondale, IL, Macon, GA, Charleston, SC, and Columbus MS; the latter two are explained in the next section.
Many local observances or spring tributes to fallen Civil War soldiers had occurred before any formal celebration had been recognized.
In Charleston, South Carolina, 1865, a touching memorial service was initiated by black Americans, many of whom were freed slaves. The Washington Race Course and Jockey Club had been converted into an outdoor war prison in the last year of the Civil War. Many Union prisoners had died from exposure and cold, and buried hastily en masse behind the grandstands. Later, a group of black workmen went to the site to properly re-bury the Union soldiers. They erected a fence around the gravesite, and an arched sign, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Black residents, white teachers and missionaries organized a 10,000 strong memorial parade through the former race course. The service was held on May 1st, 1865, and included 3,000 black schoolchildren bearing armloads of flowers, and other groups of black and white men and women following the procession. Reportedly, when the ceremonies were over, a blanket of flowers draped over the graves; so much so that the earth was barely visible.
In the spring of 1866, in Columbus, MS, a group of women went to decorate the gravesites of Confederate soldiers who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. The graves of Union soldiers were purposefully neglected, but the group became bothered upon realizing how barren those sites looked. They decided to decorate the Union graves as well.
Confederate Memorial Days
Many Southern states still observe a Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate Decoration Day, or in Texas, Confederate Heroes Day. Because the official Decoration Day was organized by Union veterans, many Southern or former confederate states refused to recognize this holiday. In fact, the first official observance of fallen Confederate soldiers predates the formal Union-based initiation. The wife of Major General Logan has even said that he had been inspired by and respected the Southern observance for honor they gave to their fallen, appreciating that their soldiers had died fighting for a cause they so deeply believed in. For Southern states, the days in which the Confederate Memorial Day varies. Some states determined the date of celebration based on a hero’s birthday or anniversary of a particular event. For example, North and South Carolina chose May 10th, for the date of Stonewall Jackson’s death in 1863, and for Jefferson Davis’s capture in 1865.
National Moment of Remembrance
In 2000, as an effort to reinforce the true meaning of Memorial Day, Congress established the National Moment of Remembrance. For one minute beginning at 3:00pm local time, a moment of silence shall be observed on Memorial Day in honor of all the men and women who have died serving our country.
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