Opinion: Memorial Day dates back to the Civil War

by Howard Lestrud
ECM Online Managing Editor

The holiday was originally conceived to honor and remember those who have died in our nation’s service.
There is nothing more beautiful than to see our cemeteries, big and small, decorated in true floral colors on Memorial Weekend. Our family each Memorial holiday places flowers on our loved ones’ graves and typically attends a small-town Memorial Day observance in northern Iowa. This small-town observance features the local high school band, local veterans officials laying wreaths on soldier graves and a featured speaker, often a war veteran.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and many say that Memorial Day got its start in the late 1860s when women’s groups in the South were decorating graves of soldiers.
Let’s find some history on Memorial Day by going to http://www.usmemorialday.org/backgrnd.html
Read the following: “Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.
“There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” (Source: Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920).
“While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen John Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868.
“It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.
“Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. 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).
“It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: Jan. 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
“Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
“There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.
“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.’”
If you’re looking for more history on Memorial Day, go to these informational links:
• Boalsburg, Pa., Birthplace of MEMORIAL DAY at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~pacentre/memory.htm
General Logan’s General Order 11 at http://www.usmemorialday.org/backgrnd.html
Help Restore The Traditional Day Of Observance For Memorial Day at http://www.usmemorialday.org/act.html
How To Observe Memorial Day at http://www.usmemorialday.org/observe.htm
Memorial Day Events – Dept of Veterans Affairs — The Office of Public Affairs provides a special Memorial Day page of items that may be of special interest to veterans and customers: http://www1.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/index.asp
“Bivouac of the Dead” is a popular poem, various verses inscribed on cemeteries throughout some of our nation’s summaries. Read about the poet Theodore O’Hara at http://www.cem.va.gov/cem/hist/bivouac.asp
The muffled drum’s sad roll has beat
The soldier’s last tattoo;
No more on Life’s parade shall meet
That brave and fallen few.
On fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents to spread,
And glory guards, with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

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