Memorial Day 2018 is the unofficial kickoff to the summer. While many will be found barbecuing and grilling, others will be at parades and cemeteries to commemorate Americans who have fallen during war. Memorial Day is much more than just a three-day weekend and a chance to get the year’s first sunburn. This day is a remembrance of the ultimate sacrifice many gave for our freedoms.
Here’s a handy list of facts to give the holiday some perspective:
- IT STARTED WITH THE CIVIL WAR. Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead: In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery. In April 1866, women from Columbus, Mississippi, laid flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. In the same month, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance. Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
- MAJOR GENERAL JOHN A. LOGAN MADE IT OFFICIAL. General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 “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.”
- IT WAS FIRST KNOWN AS DECORATION DAY. The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name in 1967.
- THE HOLIDAY IS A FRANCHISE. Calling Memorial Day a “national holiday” is a bit of a misnomer. While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.
- IT WAS JAMES GARFIELD’S FINEST HOUR. On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation. Some 5000 people attended on a spring day which, The New York Times reported, was “somewhat too warm for comfort.” The principal speaker was James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, a Republican congressman from Ohio and future president. “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,” Garfield began and then continued to utter them. “If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of fifteen-thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.”
- NOT EVEN THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER CAN AVOID MEDIA SCRUTINY THESE DAYS. “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” That 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. Unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War subsequently were interred in the tomb on Memorial Day 1958.
- VIETNAM VETS GO WHOLE HOG. 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. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans. There may have been a half-million participants in 2005, in what organizers bluntly call “a demonstration—not a parade.” A national veterans rights group, Rolling Thunder takes its name from the B-52 carpet-bombing runs during the war in Vietnam.
- MEMORIAL DAY HAS ITS CUSTOMS. 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. The World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. 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.”
Whether you personally know somebody who has died while in service to the United States, or whether you can only connect with the news reports of those losing their lives while serving our country, make sure you take time this Memorial Day to remember how much your freedom has cost.
“There is nothing nobler than risking your life for your country.” — Nick Lampson
Ref. Wikipedia, mentalfloss.com, MSN/bustle.com
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