Honoring Our Fallen Heroes
Memorial Day has been around since the end of the Civil War but only became a national holiday in 1971. Not always known by that name, the day originally had no name at all. It was just a day when families gathered to honor fallen family members who had died in this nations’ most disastrous and costly war. The Civil War inflicted such heavy casualties that at the end of the war, America’s first national cemetery was established. Some people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. The Memorial Day observance is the last Monday in May, whereas Veterans Day is always Nov. 11. Memorial Day honors military members who have died, while Veterans Day recognizes the service of all America's veterans, both living and dead.
No one really knows the origin of Memorial Day, but several things converged to make it possible. By the late 1860’s Americans had begun holding Springtime tributes to the thousands killed during the Civil War, gradually evolving into the act of decorating their graves with flowers and saying prayers over the graves.
While it is not clear where, or even how, the tradition started, since it just seemed to spring up among many small communities nationwide all about the same time, some records indicate one of the earliest such gatherings was conducted by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, SC, about a month after the South surrendered. However, the official birthplace of Memorial Day, as recognized by the federal government, is Waterloo, New York, in 1966. It appears Waterloo was selected because it was one of the first sites to officially celebrate the tradition - May 5, 1866 – and was the first place businesses closed their doors, and graves were decorated with flowers and flags by its citizens.
General John A. Logan, leader of the Northern Civil War Veterans is believed to be the first to call for a national holiday to honor the country’s dead veterans. He dubbed it, Decoration Day, stating, “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,” he proclaimed. He chose that particular date because it held no significance to any battle date of the Civil War.
One year later, James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, at which over 5,000 participants showed up and decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. By 1890, most of the northern states had adopted May 30th as their official Decoration Day. Southern states did not adopt that as their own official date until after World War I.
During World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, in which it suffered horrendous casualties. After that war, the country decided it needed a holiday to honor soldiers and sailors who had lost their lives in past wars or would, in future wars. Until then, Decoration Day was meant to honor only the Civil War fallen, and so, it was decided that one day of the year should commemorate the deaths from all wars, including, and eventually evolving to include those lost in WW II, the Vietnam War, Koran War, and recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
However, for decades what we now call Memorial Day, continued on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. This allowed a three-day weekend for federal employees; and went into effect in 1971, declaring Memorial Day to be a federal holiday.
We now celebrate Memorial Day in cities and towns throughout the country, with parades incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Our largest celebrations, take place in some of our largest cities such as Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Americans visit military cemeteries by the millions each year wearing red poppies in remembrance of those who have fallen in war. The red poppy is a tradition that started at the end of WW I, and relates to the battle of Flanders Field.
(See Poem Below)
“In Flanders Fields”
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Americans take advantage of the three-day weekend to travel, barbecue, and gather with family and friends. Most feel this is largely because the Memorial Day weekend unofficially marks the beginning of summer. For us veterans, those who have shed blood for this great nation and stood beside some of those as they fell, Memorial Day carries a much deeper meaning. We tend to have our times to remember more frequently than others do. Those feelings often come uninvited, but never resented, at any time of the day - or the middle of the night - a familiar tone of voice by some passing stranger, a laugh in the crowd, even a remembered phrase or simply a shared activity, as we go about our daily business. With these, come equal amounts of sweetness and sorrow, as a face floats past our minds of a boy-man who will forever be young in our memories. However, in that moment, they live once more for us.
On a personal note, Memorial Day is particularly poignant for me because I remember all those whom I have served with and have since departed – as well as their families. They were friends, comrades, war buddies, and a few who became more than brothers. On this day, May 30th, they will once more be alive, just as I remembered them, recalling the things they contributed to my own development, and to their country. Heroes all, some fell on the battlefield, some passed due to later illnesses in life, many from maladies they encountered during the war. At 3:00 PM on 30 May 2020, I will pause for a few minutes to remember.
Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. Please observe it for our honored dead.
LTC Raymond (Ray) Morris
U.S. Army Special Forces (ret)
Visit Award-Winning Author R.C. Morris at:
The Ether Zone (U.S Army Special Forces Detachment B-52, Project Delta)
Don't Make the Blackbirds Cry