Memorial Day is more than BBQ’s and vacations over the long weekend, it is meant to fly the flag a big higher and say thank you to those service members who gave everything to our great country.
Due to the nature of this weekend, I decided to take a little break from the content of my normal blog posts to write about something near and dear to my heart, my brothers and sisters who died in the service of our country. This is a topic I feel an immense amount of pride and respect for due to the deep ties my family has with military service. While many people will recognize Memorial Day this year as being on May 25th and having the day off to spend with family, many more will be grieving or giving their respects to those who have fallen. This post will give you a little history on the holiday and why we observe this day.
The Establishment of the National Cemetery
Before the Civil War ended in 1865, the country was reeling from the number of soldiers on both sides the war was claiming. This prompted Congress to give powers to President Abraham Lincoln to establish the country’s first national cemetery for “the soldiers who shall die in the service of the country.” The following fourteen sites were selected for their proximity to battlefields, hospitals, or campsites as the first national cemeteries:
- Alexandria National Cemetery, Alexandria, Va.
- Annapolis National Cemetery, Annapolis, Md.
- Antietam National Cemetery, Sharpsburg, Md.
- Camp Butler National Cemetery, Springfield, Ill.
- Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, N.Y.
- Danville National Cemetery, Danville, Ky.
- Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
- Fort Scott National Cemetery, Fort Scott, Kan.
- Keokuk National Cemetery, Keokuk, Iowa
- Loudon Park National Cemetery, Baltimore, Md.
- Mill Springs National Cemetery, Nancy, Ky.
- New Albany National Cemetery, New Albany, Ind.
- Philadelphia National Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pa.
- Soldier’s Home National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
By the late 1860’s, Americans were holding annual tributes during the Spring by decorating graves with flowers and reciting prayers. In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued General Order Number 11, designating May 30th as Memorial Day. There are several cities that may have independently organized memorial day gatherings, such as in Charleston, SC less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union where freed slaves buried and honored the bodies of fallen Union prisoners. There are also precedents in Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and many other cities throughout the country of people decorating the graves of soldiers through hymns and recounts of parades.
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. – James A. Garfield May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
However, Waterloo, New York was declared the “Birthplace of Memorial Day” by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 due to its formal observance on May 5, 1866. The first nationally recognized Memorial Day, then known as Decoration Day, was held on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where the graves of soldiers were decorated and a parade to honor them was held. The formal observance of the holiday is also celebrated differently by some states, observing Confederate Memorial Day on different days between January and June based on the state.
Today’s Memorial Day
In 1971, the federal government changed the observance of the holiday to the last Monday in May and extended the holiday to all soldiers who died in American wars. The national observance of Memorial Day still occurs at Arlington National Cemetery with placing of a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the President or Vice-President and decorations of each grave with a small American flag. Another large observance of Memorial Day occurs in Washington D.C. at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, with veterans, relatives, and friends of those who fought in the Vietnam War paying their respects to those fallen soldiers.
Memorial Day Traditions
With Memorial Day marking the unofficial start to the summer, most people will be enjoying the long weekend in the sun with family, parties, and barbecues. However, it is also especially important to remember how you got those freedoms and the true reason for the holiday. Those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice will be always remembered by our country.