Each of us probably have holidays through out the year that we especially look forward to and then there are holidays or observances that we just don’t pay that much attention to, unless maybe we get a day off from work. Even then, we probably are just glad to not have to go to work. I’m afraid that for many Memorial Day is such a day. We just go about our busy day and never think of what the day actually means. I’m sorry to say that I have been guilty of that more times than I care to think about so I thought that it would be interesting to learn more about the history behind Memorial Day.
Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic declared in General Order No. 11 that:
“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. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
The date of Decoration Day, as Gen. Logan called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873 and by 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
In 1915, Moina Michael was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields” to respond with these words:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She then came up with the idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.
Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. The poppy soon was adopted as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
The minimal assessment (cost of Buddy Poppies) to VFW units provides compensation to the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs and partially supports the VFW National Home for orphans and widows of our nation’s veterans. From: http://www.vfw.org/Community/Buddy-Poppy/
Each year for the past 40 years, the 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard) has honored America’s fallen heroes by placing American flags before the gravestones and niches of service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend.
This tradition, known as “flags in,” has been conducted annually since The Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry participates, placing small American flags one foot in front and centered before each grave marker.
During an approximately three-hour period, the soldiers place flags in front of more than 260,000 gravestones and about 7,300 niches at the cemetery’s columbarium. Another 13,500 flags are placed at the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Cemetery. As part of this yearly memorial activity, Old Guard soldiers remain in the cemetery throughout the weekend, ensuring that a flag remains at each gravestone.
American flags are also placed at the graves of each of the four unknown service men interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns, by the Tomb Sentinels. All flags are removed after Memorial Day before each cemetery is opened to the public.
In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights. And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’”.
It isn’t important who was the very first to be recognized for their observances. What is important is that Memorial Day was established not to cause division as in the early history but that it is about reconciliation. It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
As Memorial Day is observed this year on Monday, May 28th, please take a moment to remember the sacrifices of so many, both past and present, and to thank those who are currently serving. That is the least that we can do.
“Who kept the faith and fought the fight; The glory theirs, the duty ours.” -Wallace Bruce
Freedom Is Not Free
By Kelly Strong
I watched the flag pass by one day.
It fluttered in the breeze.
A young Marine saluted it,
and then he stood at ease.
I looked at him in uniform
So young, so tall, so proud,
With hair cut square and eyes alert
He’d stand out in any crowd.
I thought how many men like him
Had fallen through the years.
How many died on foreign soil?
How many mothers’ tears?
How many pilots’ planes shot down?
How many died at sea?
How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves?
No, Freedom is not Free.
I heard the sound of TAPS one night,
When everything was still
I listened to the bugler play
And felt a sudden chill.
I wondered just how many times
That TAPS had meant “Amen,”
When a flag had draped a coffin
Of a brother or a friend.
I thought of all the children,
Of the mothers and the wives,
Of fathers, sons and husbands
With interrupted lives.
I thought about a graveyard
At the bottom of the sea
Of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, Freedom is not Free.
CDR Kelly Strong, USCG Retired
(Usage Permission granted by the author)