Memorial Day, which this year will be celebrated on Monday, May 26, 2014, is an honored tradition dating from the aftermath of the Civil War. It’s more than just a time for families to get together and throw a slab of meat on the grill. It is a chance to remember those family members and other brave Americans who died on the fields of battle or from the wounds incurred in battle. It is our chance to acknowledge their sacrifice.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. It was a tradition for women to decorate the graves of the men who had sacrificed their lives in battle. Women’s groups in the South had been honoring this tradition for some time. A hymn composed in 1867 by Nella L. Sweet, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping,” was dedicated to “The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.” (Duke Univ.) Several of the southern states still observe a separate date for honoring the Civil 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. (usmemorialday.org)
But the first national acknowledgment of the day was in the North. Memorial Day was first proclaimed a holiday on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, via his General Order No. 11 and was observed on May 30, 1868 in a ceremony in which flowers were laid on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. “It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.” (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs) New York was the first state to adopt the holiday in 1873, and by 1890 it was observed by all the states in the North. The South celebrated the honoring of its dead on separate holidays and refused to conform to the Northern holiday until after World War I, at which time Memorial Day came to signify the veneration of all fallen soldiers, not just those from the Civil War. The day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May (National Holiday Act of 1971, P.L. 90-363). As a matter of convenience for federal workers, the date was moved to a Monday so that the holiday could provide a three-day-weekend, rather than falling in the middle of the week.
In an effort to bring greater significance to Memorial Day, Congress in 2000 passed the Moment of Remembrance Act (P.L. 106-579), to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity.” (USA.gov) This act is an effort to encourage a moment of silence and remembrance at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day to recall the service of American dead and their contribution to our freedom.
Memorial Day has become a holiday for barbeques and enjoying the springtime sunshine, but to the America in which the tradition first emerged, it was a time for thoughtful contemplation, for remembering the dead and meditating on the losses incurred in war. One great American writer has become a symbol of the Civil War era and a recorder of the pain and fearful losses borne by this country as a consequence of that war. Walt Whitman wrote poignantly of the grieving American widow and the pain experienced by a country that had been torn apart. One poem in particular evokes the agony of a mother (neither Union nor Confederate, but the “Mother of All”) beseeching the earth to preserve the essence of the lives of the fallen dead.
PENSIVE ON HER DEAD GAZING, I HEARD THE MOTHER OF ALL
Pensive, on her dead gazing, I heard the Mother of All,
Desperate, on the torn bodies, on the forms covering the battle-fields gazing;
As she call’d to her earth with mournful voice while she stalk’d:
Absorb them well, O my earth, she cried-I charge you, lose not my sons! lose not an atom;
And you streams, absorb them well, taking their dear blood;
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly,
And all you essences of soil and growth-and you, O my rivers’ depths;
And you mountain sides-and the woods where my dear children’s blood, trickling, redden’d;
And you trees, down in your roots, to bequeath to all future trees,
My dead absorb-my young men’s beautiful bodies absorb
-and their precious, precious, precious blood;
Which holding in trust for me, faithfully back again give me, many a year hence,
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence;
In blowing airs from the fields, back again give me my darlings-give my immortal heroes;
Exhale me them centuries hence-breathe me their breath-let not an atom be lost;
O years and graves! O air and soil! O my dead, an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial, sweet death, years, centuries hence.
(The Walt Whitman Archive)
This poem speaks to the American need to honor the fallen heroes who have died to secure their freedom. This plaintive prayer is an appeal that these warriors not be forgotten over the years for their sacrifice and that we appreciate the blessings of independence they have bestowed upon us. So, while you’re enjoying the potato salad and the touch football game in the park, take a moment to remember what it’s all about and give thanks to those who made it possible.
Ask.com, “Memorial Day, Day of Remembrance,” http://usmilitary.about.com/od/theorderlyroom/a/memorialday.htm
Duke University, “Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920,” http://search.library.duke.edu/search?Nty=1&N=210980&Ntk=Keyword&Ntt=Nella%20Sweet
“Memorial Day History,” http://www.usmemorialday.org/backgrnd.html
The Walt Whitman Archive, “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I Heard the Mother of All,” http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1867/poems/210
U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, “Memorial Day History,” http://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp
USA.gov, “Memorial Day,” http://www.usa.gov/Topics/Memorial-Day.shtml