From my Leadership Program of the Rockies Advisory Board colleague, Ted Vail...
Ever wonder about the origin of Memorial Day?
It is much more than a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer. To many people, especially the nation's thousands of combat veterans, this day, which has a history stretching back all the way to the Civil War, is an important reminder of those who died in the service of their country. They died to preserve our freedom, our liberty and our special nation.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation's Civil War dead by decorating their graves.
The Civil War ended in 1865. Over 620,000 people died, out of a population of only 32 million. Lost was a generation of sons, fathers and husbands; daughters, mothers and wives.
The spring of 1866 saw women in the South and North starting to decorate the graves of lost loved ones. This spread.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers, declared in General Order No. 11 that:
"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... We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."
Thus the first widely observed Decoration Day was held on May 30th, 1868, three years after the war ended. The ceremonies were held at the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, which was across the Potomac River from Washington DC. It once was the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and had been seized to become the Arlington National Cemetery. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials presided over a gathering of 5,000 of the living, surrounded by the tombstones of over 15,000 war dead.
The main speaker was General James Garfield (who later became president of the United States). "I am oppressed
," Garfield said, "with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here 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…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 virtue.
After the speeches, children from the Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republic made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
Garfield's eloquent expression of the national reverence for its heroes prompted similar Memorial Day observances all over the country. By the late 1800s, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Memorial Day and, after World War I, observances also began to honor those who had died in all of America's wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May. (Veterans Day, a day set aside to honor all veterans, living and dead, is celebrated each year on November 11.)
Memorial Day is now celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Also, it is customary for the president or vice-president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually. It is celebrated throughout the country at other cemeteries holding the dead of war. Parades are held, as are community picnics.
Memorial Day – Never Forget… Always Honor.
Thus it is so very appropriate that we not take for granted the supreme sacrifice so many have given… their lives… to preserve our American freedom.