Every year millions of Americans celebrate Memorial day, but many do not know the history of or reason for this holiday. At this moment in our nation’s history it is important for us to understand this holiday, and to celebrate it with a new understanding and reverence.
The concept for the holiday began in the 1850′, when towns would gather together in remembrance of Civil War soldiers who fell in combat. In the South many organized women’s groups decorated the graves of confederate soldiers. These activities spurred the creation of a national holiday. Memorial day was officially recognized on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan. The first celebration was observed on May 30 when flowers were placed on Union and Confederate soldiers’ graves, in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1873, New York became the first state to recognize the holiday and by 1890 the majority of northern states had officially adopted the holiday. The southern states did not recognize the holiday, and held a similar holiday on different days. After World War I, the holiday was changed to include honoring all who have fallen in combat. Currently, the holiday is held on the last Monday in May.
In 1915, Moina Michael started the tradition of wearing poppies on Memorial day, in honor of those who died in combat. She was inspired by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ and even wrote her own poem:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal from the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
This tradition not only spread throughout the states, but also spread to other countries. In 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ association to sell poppies nationally. The United States Postal Service honored Moina in 1940 for her role in the National Poppy movement by issuing a special red, three cent stamp.
More recently, Memorial day has been losing its meaning and traditional observances have become increasingly rare. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
here are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50′s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’;s Heights (the Luminaria Program). And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.
As Memorial day approaches, let us take the time to remember those who have fallen in combat. Many state and national veterans’ cemeteries have moving services for Memorial day. This year let’s take some time to honor our fallen heroes.
Merchant, David M. “Memorial Day” (1994).