While some Americans may celebrate Memorial Day with an outdoor cookout to mark the beginning of summer, and others may consider it the beginning of summer blockbuster movie season, Memorial Day is truly a solemn occasion. Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day is the day to remember all those who died in the service of the United States during all of our wars.
Many cities and towns in the U. S. make a claim to the earliest observance commemorating the fallen heroes of the American Civil War, with events dating back to the 1860s. During and after the Civil War, the widows, orphans and relatives of the dead soldiers and sailors, from both Union and Confederacy, would decorate the graves of these fallen heroes with flowers, while singing hymns and reciting prayers.
The earliest, famous, national declaration calling for observance of Decoration Day was on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan. As leader of a national organization of Union Army veterans known as the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan issued his General Order No. 11. The Order says in part, “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.”
The fallen of the Union Army continued to be observed on 30 May for many years following, but southern states recognized the fallen of the Confederacy on different dates. After the Great War, World War I, the day became an observance for the fallen service members of all our wars and southern states began to observe it as well.
In May 1966, U. S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation recognizing Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. With a Federal Law in 1968 and an Executive Order in 1971, the last Monday of May was codified as Memorial Day. Since then many cities and towns hold parades, as well as ceremonies at local Veterans’ cemeteries, on Memorial Day. Such observances dwindled in the 1990s. But after thirteen years of the Global War on Terrorism and Overseas Contingency Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, sub-Saharan Africa, and other places, during the early 21st century, Memorial Day is becoming more heartfelt again.
So what are we celebrating, or in this case observing?
I think we’re celebrating the lives and mourning the deaths of all our fallen service members who died in war, or as General Odierno used to say, “all our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and Civilians.” Regardless of religious or political affiliation, let us join together to honor the memory of all these brave men and women who gave their lives in defense of our country, our Constitution, our way of life, and our freedom, as well as freeing others.
Let us celebrate the lives and mourn the deaths of these our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, ancestors, nephews, nieces, friends, classmates who answered the call when our country, Constitution and way of life were threatened. Let us observe their deaths and honor their heroism, but let us also remember and honor that for which they fought and gave their lives: our freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, our right to keep and bear arms, our freedom of association, our right to petition for redress of grievance, for our right to due process of law and our freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Let us not forget those they left behind, their bereaved widows, widowers, orphans, loved ones and friends.
Let us commemorate those who gave their last full measure of devotion that we might remain a nation of laws and not of men, that we might remain one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Do you have ancestors, friends, relatives or loved ones who died in the Service, during a war? Tell us their names and a little bit about them in the comments below.
Views and opinions expressed in these writings are my own, unless attributed or documented to someone else, and either way are not necessarily those of my employers.