On Memorial Day, May 26, please take a minute at 3pm to remember and honor our fallen heroes who fought in our country’s wars to keep us free. True, the holiday has become celebrated as the kick-off to summer, and a day for parades, barbeques, and parties, but its origins, still a matter of debate, were of a somber and reflective nature. We have lost 1.1 million men and women in our nation’s wars
The History of Memorial Day
There are at least two dozen towns that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, first known as Decoration Day. In 1966, Congress named Waterloo, New York, as the official first site of the holiday. It was chosen because since May 5, 1866, it has hosted a community-wide event every year. The town shuts down and residents decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags.
Several years before that, in 1862, the leader of a Union veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a national day of remembrance at the end of May for strewing flowers and decorating graves. Flowers are in full bloom at that time so it seemed the best choice. May 30 was officially chosen, and made a national day of remembrance in 1868 with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Five thousand participants decorated both Union and Confederate graves
However, Columbus, Mississippi, also claims credit. On April 25, 1866, a group of women started out to lay flowers on Confederate graves. They noticed that nearby graves of Union soldiers lay barren, so they decorated them as well. The town makes its ownership claim, as does Columbus and Macon, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, as well as Boalsburg, Pennsylvania and Carbondale, Illinois in the north. And more.
And on May 1, 1865, a crowd of thousands memorialized Union dead in Charleston, South Carolina. A racetrack in Charleston had been turned into military prison camp. Union soldiers who died were buried in a mass grave. Former slaves built a tall fence around the area and painted a sign that read: “Martyrs of the Race Track.” They unearthed the bodies and gave them all a proper burial. Two weeks later. a parade of 10,000 people. led by 2800 black children marched and sang, along with ministers of black churches, Union officers, abolitionists, and black infantry soldiers.
Many southern states continue to celebrate their versions of Memorial Day on different dates. But after World War l, it was decided that Decoration Day should honor the veterans of all wars, not just the Civil War. Shortly after the war, the tradition of poppy sales was born. Veterans can be seen in various places with small paper poppies prior to the holiday. This stems from the beautiful poem written by John McCrae during the war. Here are two verses:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, as in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard beneath the guns below
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields…..
The name Memorial Day gradually became more common in the early 20th century but was not officially changed from Decoration Day until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, changing four holidays to Mondays, in order to make three-day weekends. That included Memorial Day, which is now always the fourth Monday of May. Critics have said that the true meaning of the day has been lost, replaced by festivities and partying. In response, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act” in 2000, encouraging Americans to pause at 3pm for a minute of silence.
This year, as in the first Memorial Day in 1868, five thousand people will attend the ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. All of the graves will be decorated. The President or Vice-President will lay the wreath on the tomb of the unknown soldier. We also should be sure to pause and honor our heroes.