Memorial Day is not a holiday in the usual celebratory sense of the word. Rather, it is a commemoration of selfless sacrifice by many patriots and comrades-in-arms, who remain “forever young” in the memory of those of us who had the privilege of serving alongside of them.
Try and find a few minutes during this “Holiday” weekend to pause and reflect on the meaning of the day, and perhaps let gratitude fill your heart.
Up until 1967 Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, and its genesis was in response to the carnage of the Civil War, wherein 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers gave their lives. And it was this horrific loss of life and its effect on the nation that led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead all across the nation, including Waterloo, New York, the town officially recognized by Congress as the holiday’s “birthplace.”
~ Did you know? ~
While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. And it was the ‘federal’ Memorial Day, established in 1888, that allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing government paychecks, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay. It should be noted too, that in 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday of the month.
President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Five thousand people attended the ceremonies that day and The New York Times reported it was “somewhat too warm for comfort”—something that’s usually not a worry here in the valley. Then after the patriotic songs, speeches and sermons ended, the participants decorated the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried there—hence the original name, Decoration Day.
As an aside, until 1864, the ground that is now ‘Arlington’ was the home and plantation of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
~ Memorial Day and the Unknown Soldier ~
“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God,” is the inscription on the Tomb of the Unknowns, established at Arlington National Cemetery to inter the remains of the first Unknown Soldier, a World War I fighter, on November 11, 1921. And it was unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War who were subsequently interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.
~ MIAs ~
On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action or prisoners of war. A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder took its name from the B-52 bombing runs during the war in Vietnam.
~ Traditions ~
It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half-staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.
Taps, the 24-note bugle call, is played at all military funerals and memorial services are also played on Memorial Day. Originating in 1862 when Union General Dan Butterfield “grew tired of the ‘lights out’ call sounded at the end of each day,” according to The Washington Post. Together with the brigade bugler, Butterfield made some changes to the tune.
The World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. And in 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who died.” The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. “is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.”
Quote of the Day: “The sanctity of our battlefields, monument, and veterans institutions is of utmost importance to preserve military history and pay respect to those who fought.”—Henry Waxman