The distant roots of Memorial Day can be traced back 24 centuries to Greece, where Pericles offered this tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
The more immediate source of the holiday can be traced to Major General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). General Logan formally established Decoration Day - now called Memorial Day - on May 5, 1868, by declaring May 30th to be the designated day for decorating the graves of Civil War veterans with flowers. May 30th has been variously thought of as the holiday for two reasons: 1. Flowers nationwide would be in peak bloom at that time and 2. It was a day of peace; i.e., no known battle had been fought on that day. May 30th remained the official day for the remembrance of veterans until the National Holiday Act of 1971, which designated the last Monday in May to be Memorial Day, thereby insuring a three day holiday weekend.
Now, it just so happens that Memorial Day 2011 happens to be on May 30th - the original and officially designated day for decorating soldiers’ graves - established by General Logan’s “General Order Number 11” in 1868. The controversial change brought about by the Holiday Act of 1971, however, is not the only change that has occurred involving Decoration Day over the years.
Decoration Day of 1868 centered around the graves of the Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetery. Most appropriately, President Ulysses S. Grant - to whom Lee had surrendered at Appomattox in April of 1865 - presided over the first, solemn ceremony at Lee’s former estate, which had been seized by the North and used as a burial ground. About 5,000 people attended the first observance. The first ceremony began the tradition of memorial speeches followed by prayers of remembrance, hymns, the distribution of small flags, and then, finally, decorating the graves with flowers.
New York became the first state to formally recognize the holiday in 1873; in fact, in May 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially recognized Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day, though other towns and states lay claim to the same title. Pharmacist Henry C. Welles of Waterloo is credited with organizing the town’s first formal remembrance of veterans and a Memorial Day Museum is located in Waterloo. By 1890, all northern states - including Connecticut - had formally recognized the holiday. Southern states refused to recognize the holiday throughout most of the 19th century, preferring to honor the Confederate dead on different days, depending on the state. For example, June 3rd - Jefferson Davis’s birthdate - was the day to remember the Confederate dead in both Louisiana and in Mississippi.
The end of World War I brought about significant changes to Decoration Day. First, it became now a holiday for remembering the dead veterans of all wars, not just the Civil War. Second, Decoration Day now had evolved into a national holiday with virtually all states participating on May 30th. Another significant change occurred around this time as a result of a Georgia professor’s response to the most famous poem written about World War I. In response to Canadian poet’s John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field,” Professor Moina Michael wrote her own poem entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith.” Here is a short excerpt from her response:
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.
Thus, the poppy became part of the Decoration Day tradition. Silk poppies were made and sold to raise money for disabled American vets. The poppy has now become an enduring symbol and tribute to the sacrifices of veterans in over 50 countries in the world, thanks to the efforts of a teacher from Georgia. Daughter of a Confederate war veteran herself, Moina Michael was able to see over $200 million raised for veterans during her lifetime! In tribute to her efforts for veterans, the U.S. Post Office issued a 3 cent commemorative stamp in her honor in 1948 (see photo).
By 1971, Decoration Day had morphed into Memorial Day, and it was declared a national holiday for the first time in the National Holiday Act. However, the change of the date of celebration to the last Monday in May - regardless of the date - has caused controversy. Many believe that the 3-day weekend created by the 1971 Holiday Act has subverted the spirit of Memorial Day by distracting people from the true meaning of the holiday. The VFW stated the following in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create 3-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
In other words, Memorial Day weekend had become more of a time for recreation than for remembrance. As a consequence of the perception of the nonchalant observance of Memorial Day, some legislators have attempted to restore May 30th as the date for the celebration of the holiday. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, himself a war hero of World War II, introduced legislation in 1999 to do just that. A House version of a similar bill has been introduced as well in recent years; nevertheless, the provisions of the National Holiday Act in 1971 have remained intact.
The year 2000, however, did mark the latest change to the Memorial Day holiday. In an attempt to remind Americans of the meaning of the holiday, Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution. This resolution calls for all Americans at 3 p.m. “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.” This resolution seems to be a kind of intermediate step toward trying to restore the real meaning of Memorial Day that seems to have been lost as a result of the National Holiday Act of 1971.
It is clear that the holiday that we now know as Memorial Day has undergone many changes since its inception as Decoration Day back in 1868. It can only be hoped that the sentiments of General John A. Logan, whose order established the holiday, can be met in some way:
We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance…Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.
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