Miniature American flags placed in front of markers for those who served and many who fell for freedom wave in gentle breezes. Home-town civic bands play on bandstands in town squares. John Philip Sousa fills the air with the United States “National March,” the “Stars and Stripes Forever” with piccolos, absolutely piccolos. Families gathering and remembering … Memorial Day parades are much-anticipated events on this special day, the last Monday in May.
More somber events mark the federal holiday we know as Memorial Day, such as wreath-laying at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and similar ceremonies at the 136 national cemeteries throughout the United States. On this day at 3:00 p.m. local time, a “national moment of remembrance” is to take place, encouraged by an act of Congress in 2000.
Families or solitary figures walking among the gravesites find the resting places of fallen loved ones who served the nation. These are some of the images that come to mind during this national holiday of remembrance. But this particular day did not start that way.
Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, many small towns and larger communities adopted a tradition of commemorating those who died in the war between the states. Families took to decorating the graves of the countless fallen soldiers with flowers and holding prayer vigils.
Consequently, the day was memorialized as “Decoration Day.” On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, who led the organization that honored Northern Civil War veterans, proclaimed May 30 Decoration Day, honoring the more than 620,000 killed in the conflict. General Logan chose that date because it “wasn’t the anniversary of a particular battle” during the Civil War.
Where exactly the first of these memorials took place is unclear. However, because a ceremony did take place there on that date, coinciding with General Logan’s proclamation, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.” The sign welcoming travelers to the city of Waterloo makes its place in U.S. history clear. Nonetheless, that was not the first memorial conducted for the war. As a writer for History.com, Barbara Maranzani, explains:
“On May 1, 1865, more than 1,000 people recently freed from enslavement, accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians, gathered in the camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead.”
On May 30, 1868, the first national commemoration of Decoration Day took place at Arlington National Cemetery, the only “national cemetery holding servicemembers from every war in U.S. history.” Two Civil War general officers who would become presidents of the U.S. were present, with “General Ulysses S. Grant in attendance and General James Garfield as the featured speaker.” The words of Garfield’s speech were poignant and moving. One particular passage has remained and is often quoted. Garfield said:
“With words, we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke, but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
Those meaningful and appropriate words have lasted because they apply to all who have given the last sacrifice for the opportunity to live free in America. After Garfield’s address, “5000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.”
In the decades following its creation, Decoration Day was celebrated on May 30, but in 1968, a century after being established, the date was officially made the last Monday in May by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Not surprisingly, Congress passed the act “to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.” The official change took place in 1971, and Memorial Day became a federal holiday.
As Americans prepare for and spend a day with family and friends to remember, minds will picture battles both historical and recent. In his Memorial Day proclamation in 1992, President George H.W. Bush crystallized in words what the occasion should mean:
“The men and women who gave their lives in service to our country were dedicated to the worthy cause of freedom, and not one of them died in vain. From colonial America to the Persian Gulf, from places such as the Argonne to Normandy, Inchon, and Da Nang—they fought and sacrificed so others might live in peace, free from the fear of tyranny and aggression. On this Memorial Day, our hearts should swell with thankfulness and pride as we reflect on our Nation’s enduring heritage of liberty under law and on the continuing expansion of democratic ideals around the globe.”
Our duty as Americans is to never forget what people were willing to sacrifice, not just on one day during the year, but every day.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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