I’ve written about Memorial Day before but it is a subject dear to my heart having learned while I served in the military just what sacrifice truly means. Oddly, this important day’s history is uncertain and it did not become a national day of remembrance until 1966. While other countries certainly honor their men and women that die in combat, we in the United States have a civic and moral duty to recognize the sacrifice that made us who we are.
No one knows just how Memorial Day started. There are many stories and over a dozen localities lay claim to being its birthplace. Here is what we do know: Towards the end of the US Civil War, around 1864, organized women’s groups in the South (the Confederate side) began decorating the graves of soldiers killed in the war. Soon, the practice migrated north (the Union side) and the US Army officially recognized the practice in 1867 with General John Logan’s General Order # 11[i].
New York was the first state to officially recognize a Memorial Day with virtually every other state following suit, but Memorial Day did not become a federally recognized holiday until 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation into law. Sadly, it took the federal government 99 years to get with the program. If it took that long to establish something like honoring our war dead, is it any wonder why they can’t get anything done on difficult issues?
Perhaps the worst change to Memorial Day happened in 1968. The federal government saw fit to pass the Uniform Monday Holiday Act[ii](it did not take effect until 1971). The act changed the day to the last Monday in May, giving us the three-day weekend. As nice
as a three-day weekend is, it makes the day more about romping on the beach rather than honoring our lost heroes. I guess in the United States we have to invent a reason to take a holiday, I prefer the way the United Kingdom handles it by declaring a “bank holiday” and everyone just takes the day off. That way, we keep our special days special and get a break from work too.
Ok, so now you know just a bit about the history of the day. It is the history that inspired me to write my tribute poem to Memorial Day and the men and women it honors. Regardless of what you do tomorrow, take a few moments and give thanks to your fellow citizens that gave everything for you to have such a day.
Be it Southern widow’s pride
or the stroke of Logan’s pen -
the truth of it matters naught
the deeds – the fight – the daring
all sacrifice remembered
Lincoln’s “last full measure” paid
they are “the better angels”
no justice paid them with words
The price always understood.
Remember what this day’s for.
The brave, sacred few who gave,
their very bones are our brick -
their precious blood our mortar,
binding this nation as one.
They gave to us and gave all.
With bowed head I pray for them
to forever gently rest
and know we hold to the gift.
This land’s free by lives spent so
forget that not, not this day!
[i] HEADQUARTERS GRAND ARMY OF THE REPUBLIC
General Orders No.11, WASHINGTON, D.C., May 5, 1868
The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or 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.
If other eyes grow dull, other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain to us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to lend its friendly aid in bringing to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
Department commanders will use efforts to make this order effective.
By order of
JOHN A. LOGAN,
WM. T. COLLINS, A.A.G.
[ii] “Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 May 2012. Web. 27 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniform_Monday_Holiday_Act>.