During the years before and after the American Civil War, family members, friends and every day citizens began a tradition. They would visit the graves of the men and women who gave their lives while enlisted in the United State Military. Visitors would adorn the grave site with flowers to pay tribute their lives and to their service. Eventually, in 1882, this tradition became known as Decoration Day.
There is much speculation over where, exactly, this tradition began but as I recall from my college history course, it was in 1966 that President Johnson and members of Congress officially named Waterloo, NY as the “origin” of Memorial Day. The dispute involved whether the gatherings and celebrations were of a formal or informal nature.
Why the end of May?
Another disputed portion of Memorial Day history is the reasoning behind the chosen month of celebration. In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan, according to The Library of Congress, was the founder of this national holiday stating that it was “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land”. The speculation behind why the end of May was chosen varies. Some historians believe it was chosen because this date just so happened to not coincide with the dates of former Civil War battles. Others believe it was chosen because this was a time of year where numerous flowers would be in full bloom throughout the Untied States. Regardless, this marked a transition from Decoration Day to Memorial Day.
When did it become Official?
According to History.com, it wasn’t until 1971 that the United States government finally made Memorial Day an official national holiday. America’s involvement in World War I broadened the scope of recognition to include all wars. Up until the official recognition, the fallen service members of the American Civil War were celebrated.
Evolution and the Uniform Monday Holiday Act
In June of 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed in to law the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The Act moved several different national holidays from their original dates of celebration to a determined Monday every year. The Act has caused much controversy with arguments that the Act is stripping the holidays of their roots and that it was merely a tactic to give people a longer weekend. In my opinion, after reading President Johnson’s statement, I can see both sides of the coin.
Regardless of all the squabbling and arguing, Memorial Day still means what it did back in 1882, when it was known as Decoration Day. It is a day in which all American citizens should come together to commemorate and pay tribute the fallen men and women who have died serving this country. Personally, many of my relatives have served in various battles, mostly during World War II. They went out on dangerous reconnaissance missions in Germany that aided the operations of D-Day. They walked the sands of Egypt and received their orders while serving in France.
They served, proudly and happily and not only for their country but for the good of humankind worldwide and while all most of them were lucky to come alive, many others did not. It’s rather unfortunate that politics over the years have divided so many Americans on their beliefs regarding our military personnel. These men and women endure nightmarish conditions and combat and they pay a huge price, both while deployed and once they return from their duty, if they return at all.
It doesn’t matter if there was a sinister political agenda or if the world was being threatened by a legitimately evil despot. Whether they died battling in Gettysburg, in the jungles of Korea and Vietnam, or the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq, they died heroes, sacrificing their lives with their family and friends, to march forth, into hostile and war-torn portions of the globe. To me? That’s bravery and dedication and loyalty.
Ultimately, to me, Memorial Day is about all of our men and women in the military. Out there, living, dying and sacrificing. Strong and proud and standing up for freedom and country.
This Memorial Day, I will celebrate them all.