(Mark Reinstein/Corbis/Getty Images)
What do you know about Memorial Day? In 1996, school children touring Washington DC were asked what was the meaning of Memorial Day. The predominant answer was “…the day the pools open.” In a 2019 poll commissioned by the University of Phoenix, only 55% of Americans knew the meaning of Memorial Day. In a similar poll in 2020, that fell to just 43%. Here are some tidbits to help all of us understand the significance of this important holiday as more than the weekend of opening the cabin or watching the Indy 500 stock car race.
Memorial Day Origins
The practice of honoring fallen soldiers dates back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks and Romans held annual days of remembrance placing flowers on graves and holding large public feasts in the honor of brave warriors. Memorial Day in the United States dates back to the Civil War and its origin is unclear. But one of the first public festivals was held by recently freed African Americans. As the Civil War neared the end, thousands of Union soldiers, who were prisoners of war, were quickly moved to camps near Charleston, South Carolina. Camp conditions were deplorable, especially at one camp which was a former racetrack. At that camp, 257 prisoners died from disease and exposure and were buried behind the tracks grandstand.
Shortly after the Confederate Army surrendered, on May 1, 1865, over 1,000 recently freed slaves accompanied by different regiments of the US Colored Troops gathered to properly rebury the 257 soldiers. The new graves were consecrated and covered with flowers, with thousands of people parading down the racetrack of what had been the prison camp. The Civil War had ended after 4 years and 622,000 lives lost.
Many cities have claimed to be the original home of Memorial Day. Finally, in 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 and was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
Memorial Day Becomes Official
In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. On Decoration Day, as Logan dubbed it, Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.
Why is a Red Poppy Worn?
In the spring of 1915 during World War I, bright red flowers began poking through the battle-ravaged land across northern France and Flanders (northern Belgium). Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who served as a brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit, spotted a cluster of the poppies shortly after serving as a brigade surgeon during the bloody Second Battle of Ypres. The sight of the bright red flowers against the dreary backdrop of war inspired McCrae to pen the poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he gives voice to the soldiers who had been killed in battle and lay buried beneath the poppy-covered grounds. Later that year, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael read the poem in Ladies’ Home Journal and wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith” to begin a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to all who died in war. The poppy remains a symbol of remembrance to this day.
From Decoration Day to Memorial Day
For more than a century following Logan’s decree, the May 30 holiday was officially known as Decoration Day for more than a century. The term Memorial Day was used informally beginning in the 1880s and was officially changed in 1967. Four years later, in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. The move has not been without controversy, though. Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continued to lobby for a return to the May 30 observances. For more than 20 years, their cause was championed by Hawaiian Senator—and decorated World War II veteran—Daniel Inouye, who until his 2012 death reintroduced legislation in support of the change at the start of every Congressional term.
(Frank Glick – taken at Fort Snelling National Cemetery
approx. 2011; FWIW, very near Mickey’s father’s gravesite)
Ground Rules to Consider
Last, the Marine Corps League has shared some ground rules for the Memorial Day weekend:
- Don’t wish me a Happy Memorial Day. There is nothing happy about brave men and women dying.
- It’s not a holiday. It is a remembrance.
- If you want to know the true meaning, visit Arlington or your local VA, not Disney.
Things You Can Do to Remember Memorial Day
- Fly your flag – the Stars and Stripes should be hung at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, and then raised to the top of the staff.
- Take a one minute pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time.
- If you know a “Gold Star” family (family that has lost a loved one in military service), do something kind for them.
- Attend one of the many local Memorial Day events honoring those who have fallen in military service.
- Visit a cemetery and leave a flag or flowers at the gravesite of a service member.
- Teach yourself and/or your children about the meaning of Memorial Day. For freedom that is taken for granted is freedom that will be lost…
- Thank a veteran you know or run into – with a card, email, text, phone call, hug, etc.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy, forget in time that men have died to win them.” For the large majority of the last 75 years, we have lived in relative peace with the ability to speak our mind and live our lives as we wished. Given the huge numbers of people who do not know the meaning of Memorial Day, we have also forgotten the massive sacrifices made by millions of young men and women to allow us these privileges… privileges that most of the rest of the world does not enjoy. Please remember their sacrifices, honor these fallen heroes in some fashion this weekend while also enjoying a long weekend and also consider your commitment to making sure your children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy these same fought-for freedoms in future generations.