Today marks the unofficial start of summer. In backyards around the country, barbeque grills will be fired up and children will get to play outside in the late spring sun. But Memorial Day is much more than cookouts, beach trips and an extra day off from work. Memorial Day honors all those who fought and gave their lives for this country. While we should remember our fallen heroes every day of the year, Memorial Day gives us the ability to come together as a country and send out a collective thank you for their sacrifice. But like so many American traditions, the origins of Memorial Day have faded away. So how and when did Memorial Day begin?
The Civil War claimed more lives than any previous conflict that the United States had been involved in. The death toll was so large that it created the need for the first national cemeteries to be opened. Because the war had ended in the springtime, towns across America began holding small ceremonies in the spring to honor the fallen. These small events would find townsmen collecting together in cemeteries placing flowers and reciting prayers. Originally known as Decoration Day, General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed on May 5, 1868 that a national day of remembering would be had. The General Order No. 11 stated 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.”http://www.usmemorialday.org/?page_id=2 The name Decoration Day was used because of the “decorating” of graves. The date was chosen because no specific battle fell on May 30th. By choosing a random date, it could honor all those who fought, not just those in a specific battle. On this first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery where some 5,000 people came to pay their respects and decorate the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. Garfield’s speech in part states – I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue. For the noblest man that lives, there still remains a conflict. He must still withstand the assaults of time and fortune, must still be assailed with temptations, before which lofty natures have fallen; but with these the conflict ended, the victory was won, when death stamped on them the great seal of heroic character, and closed a record which years can never blot….What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor? Here, where the grim edge of battle joined; here, where all the hope and fear and agony of their country centered; here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love! https://garfieldnps.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/james-a-garfields-decoration-day-speech-may-30-1868/
The first state to officially recognize the holiday was in New York in 1873. By 1890, all the Northern States recognized the holiday. Southern States would not recognize Decoration Day until after World War I. It was at this point that the holiday changed from honoring only those who had died in the Civil War to honoring all those who had died in any war. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Johnson would officially change the name of the holiday to Memorial Day and set its date as the last Monday in May. With the Congressional passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971, Memorial Day was given the insurance of a three-day weekend for being a Federal Holiday. Waterloo was given the honor of its birthplace because it held the first formal, village-wide observance on May 5, 1866. Organized by Henry C. Welles (a native of Glastonbury, CT). the town was decorated with flags at half mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black. Veterans and residents marched to the village cemeteries to place flowers at the gravesites. The event was repeated in 1867 and in 1868 moved to May 30th in accordance with General Logan’s orders.
In 1915, in response to the poem In Flanders Fields, Moina Michael conceived the idea of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day to honor those who died. Michael would sell poppies to her friends and co-workers and then donate the money to servicemembers in need. Before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to sell poppies nationally. In 1948, the US Post office honored Michael by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness.
Today the red poppy is a recognized symbol of remembrance, not just in the United States but in many countries around the world as well. In 2000, a resolution was passed that marked the “National Moment of Remembrance”. This resolution asks that all Americans observe a moment of silence at 3 pm local time to pay their respects. The resolution states that the moment can either be in silence or while listening to ‘Taps.”
Today Memorial Day has become more about fun than about its true meaning. Memorial Day is the day when we can stand together as a nation and thank those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. This can be done in many ways. We can visit a cemetery and place flowers a veteran’s grave, thank a family who lost a servicemember and join at 3 pm in the moment of silence. But while we do these things on Memorial Day, let’s remember to hold the same respect and gratitude throughout the rest of the year. These men and women deserve more than one day to be remembered. As summer begins and you plan your vacations, take note of a memorial that may be on your travels. Take a moment to visit and thank those that died long before their time. One such memorial is the National Submarine Memorial in Groton, CT. Just down the block from the Submarine Museum and Naval Base New London stands a memorial for World War II submarine veterans and the 3,600 submariners who lost their lives in the conflict. The memorial consists of the conning tower of the USS Flasher (SS-249) and was credited with sinking the highest tonnage of Japanese ships.
Along with the conning tower is a Wall of Honor listing the 3,617 submariners who died during the war. Also, at the site is a monument honoring the 52 submarines lost between January 1941 and August 1945. Bronze plaques list the names of the boats along with the dates of their sinking. The memorial was commemorated in 1964, moving to its current location in 1974. The Wall of Honor was dedicated in 1994.
We wish everyone a Happy and Safe Memorial Day.