Today is Memorial Day. A day of cookouts and ballgames. Family and friends. Swimming and horseshoes. It is also and foremost, a day to honor those who have died while serving our country.
I found a variety of stories as to the origins of Memorial Day. Most say it originated in the South after the Civil War, by widows as a way to pay tribute to their fallen soldiers. Some say Freedmen (freed slaves) exhumed the bodies from mass graves and reinterred them properly with individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the grounds, thereby creating the first Decoration Day. Some say it was the North who first honored their dead this way.
In the beginning, states had individual days set aside; some so set to honor a fallen General’s birthday or the end of a battle.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers. On May 5, 1868, Logan 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.
During the first celebration of Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
This 1868 celebration was inspired by local observances of the day in several towns throughout America that had taken place in the three years since the Civil War. In fact, several Northern and Southern cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, including Columbus, Miss.; Macon, Ga.; Richmond, Va.; Boalsburg, Pa.; and Carbondale, Ill. (I had to include that one since my husband is a SIU grad)
In 1966, the federal government, under the direction of President Lyndon Johnson, declared Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of Memorial Day. They chose Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—because the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
We can all go back in our families and find men and women who have fought and died defending our country. We can be proud of them for giving the ultimate sacrifice for our country. We can honor them by making sure that their efforts were not given in vain, by continuing to fight for the individual rights of each and every citizens.
Wherever you are today, take time to remember. Those who fought and lost their life in battle. Those who fought and came home and lost the battle here. All who have served and sacrificed so much.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five (5) sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,