Decoration Day 101
In spite of the incessantly confusing and mildly annoying weather patterns we have been confronted with recently around here, we have come to Memorial Day weekend, reputedly the harbinger of summer, though we have hardly seen spring. It’s supposed to be warm and pleasant, a packed weekend filled with family and friends, parades, taps, salutes, speeches, frost-free gardens, canoe races, and tag sales.
This Monday is Memorial Day, a time to remember, mourn and celebrate those brave souls who gave their lives for our country. This day was not always recognized on the last Monday in May, nor has it always been called Memorial Day, nor has the exact origin, or creator, of the day been confirmed. A number of states and cities had early days of remembrance, largely marked by the decoration of graves. The first soldier killed in the Civil War, John Quincy Marr of Warrenton, Virginia, who fought and died in the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse on June 1, 1861, was honored with flowers on his grave, a practice not widely seen since ancient times. Later, in 1865, a parade of 10,000 people organized by formerly enslaved Black families honored 257 slain Union soldiers in Charleston, South Carolina. During the Civil War, a group of women known as the Ladies Memorial Association sought to establish an annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers throughout the South. Their request spread, through newspapers, to the North, where such a holiday was also trumpeted. By 1865, South Carolina, Virginia and Mississippi all had precedents for a form of Memorial Day.
The first national observance of Memorial Day, called Decoration Day at the time, came at the end of the Civil War when, on March 3, 1868, it was proclaimed a holiday by Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (not, as far as we know, a relation of our own illustrious, late, John G. Logan), to be celebrated on May 30 when there are abundant flowers, to honor Union soldiers. The South took offense—the North had appropriated their holiday—and, in 1874, the Georgia legislature proclaimed Confederate Memorial Day a public holiday. The date of the commemoration still swung from April to mid-June, and its founding place did as well: Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois and 20 more metropolises all claimed the day. To solve this, in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson, with or without reason, declared the birthplace of Memorial Day to be Waterloo, New York.
By the end of the 19th century Memorial Day ceremonies, still honoring specifically the 600,000 soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, were being held on May 30 across the country, and the Army and Navy had proposed proper observance etiquette. Then, when the United States became embroiled in World War I, the day was expanded to honor those soldiers who died. This then came to include those who perished in all American wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 1967 the day was officially named Memorial Day, and in 1971 our Memorial Day (at times still called Decoration Day) became a national holiday. Its date was moved to the last Monday in May, making it, along with other holidays, a three-day weekend for federal employees. In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which encourages all of us to take a minute to remember, at 3 p.m. local time. Happy Memorial Day.