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Memorial Day, Not Just the Unofficial Start of Summer

To many Americans, most federal holidays are merely a day off from work. Memorial Day is no different, except that it also signifies the unofficial beginning of summer, the opening of pools, backyard cookouts, and the start of the blockbuster movie season. However, I believe that we should refocus on why they were started and this post hopefully will refresh when, how and why it began.

It is uncertain when and where the tradition began, since numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings.

The Civil War would claim more lives than any conflict in American history and would require the establishment of the country's first national cemeteries. At this time communities, both North and South, began holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906. This decoration was for the funeral of the first officer killed in action during the Civil War, Captain John Quincy Marr, who was killed 1 June 1861, during a skirmish at the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia.

In July 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia decorated the graves at Laurel Grove Cemetery of Colonel Francis S. Bartow and his comrades who died at Battle of Manassas (First Battle of Bull Run) the year before.

The dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous "Gettysburg Address" also included a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of the dead soldiers. Some have, therefore, claimed that President Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day. However, it was felt that it was Lincoln's funeral that spurred the soldiers' grave decorating that followed. After his death on 15 April 1865, commemorations were widespread.

The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government also began creating the United States National Cemetery System for the Union war dead.

On 1 May 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently freed African-Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers, whose remains they had reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp.

A year after the war's end, in April 1866, four women of Columbus, Mississippi gathered together to decorate the graves of the Confederate soldiers. They also felt moved to honor the Union soldiers buried there, and to note the grief of their families, by decorating their graves as well. The story of their gesture of humanity and reconciliation is held by some writers as the inspiration of the original Memorial Day despite its occurring last among the claimed inspirations.

General John A. Logan (1826-1886)

On 5 May 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide. He was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois. “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,” he proclaimed. This practice had begun in the Southern states three years earlier and now the northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869. Some claim that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle, others that the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.

Since 1868 Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has held an annual Memorial Day parades which it claims to be the nation's oldest continuously running. However, the Memorial Day parade in Rochester, Wisconsin predated Doylestown's by one year.

The name "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882, gradually became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II but it was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967. On 28 June 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional 30 May date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years.

By the early 20th century, the GAR complained more and more about the younger generation. In 1913, one Indiana veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a " forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races, and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears."

As time passed and soldiers fought and died in other wars, Memorial Day would serve as a day to honor and remember them, not just the ones who had served in the Civil War.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocated returning to the original date. The VFW stated in 2002: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt this has contributed to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

So, no matter how you observe or spend Memorial Day this year, I hope everyone takes a moment to remember our fallen ancestors who fought and died for our country.


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