As we prepare for all of the festivities we normally associate with the Memorial Day weekend – cook-outs, cold drinks in the hot sun, the first sunburn of the year – it’s important to reflect on the history of the day and to remember those who laid down their lives in service of their country.
Though many states and even more cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, all are in agreement that the official beginnings of the holiday can be found in the Civil War. Originally it was proclaimed “Decoration Day” by an officer in the Union Army, General John A. Logan.
General Logan declared, “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated 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.”
General Logan chose that date specifically because no significant battle had taken place on that date during the war between the states. This was not to be a remembrance of the dead of one specific battle, but for all those, both Union and Confederate, who laid down their lives in that war.
By 1890, every state in the north observed Decoration Day on May the 30th. The south continued to honor their dead on different days until after World War I, when the holiday changed to honor those who died fighting in all wars, instead of just the Civil War.
In 1915, Moina Michael, inspired by the poem “In Flander’s Fields”, conceived the idea of wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day to honor those who died in the Great War. She began selling cloth poppies to her neighbors and friends to raise money for wounded soldiers. The VFW eventually took up the cause and began selling red poppies made by disabled veterans. This tradition has spread to many European countries, though the Remembrance Poppy is primarily worn on Armistice Day (November 11) by our allies across the pond.
The holiday wasn’t officially christened “Memorial Day” until 1967. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. It is now observed in every state, though several southern states continue to hold separate ceremonies to honor those who died during the Civil War.
Memorial Day is one of the few holidays in America that we don’t celebrate, we observe. We mark its passing with moments of silence, hats removed from bowed heads, hands covering hearts, tears welling in eyes. But for those of us who have lost a loved one in a war or military action, it is a chance for celebration. We gather together with our families to celebrate the lives of those we lost, to decorate their graves with flowers and flags and to feel the warm embrace of an entire country that looks to us and says “Thank you. Your sacrifice means something to me and I want you to know that it has not been made in vain.”
And so, from our hearts to yours, from our families to yours, I want to say thank you. To all those who came home and all those who didn’t, thank you.
According to the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, over 1.1 million Americans have died fighting in wars spanning from the American Revolution to the current War on Global Terror. (Check out this website for a breakdown from 2015). http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/many-americans-died-u-s-wars/