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Memorial Day

This is the first three-day weekend of the year: an occasion for public service announcements about seat belts, marathon cross-country trips, and paper poppies.

Memorial Day is also a time to honor those who gave their lives for their country.

It started out being called Decoration Day. After the Civil War, or War Between the States, many towns found ways to honor those who had died in the war.

In 1868 General John A Logan issued General Order No. 11: "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...." General Logan was commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans.

The first celebration of Decoration Day included a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery during which graves of more than 20,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were decorated.

Several cities claim to have started Decoration Day, including: Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; and Carbondale, Illinois. A hundred years after the celebration began, President Lyndon Johnson made it official: Waterloo, New York, is officially where Memorial Day started: Memorial Day was the name of Decoration Day by then.

During the last part of the 19th century, people of the South were, understandably, less than enthusiastic about joining in a Yankee celebration. There are days set aside to honor the Confederate dead: January 19 in Texas (where they call it Confederate Heroes Day); the last Monday in April in Mississippi; The fourth Monday in April for Alabama; April 26 in Georgia; May 10 for North and South Carolina; the last Monday in May in Virginia; and June 3 for Louisiana and Tennessee (which calls it Confederate Decoration Day).

Then the Great War happened. That's what we now call World War I. Up to this point, the GAR had been running this holiday in the northern states. After WWI, the American Legion took over the running of Memorial Day.

That's when the poppies showed up. The poem In Flanders Fields inspired Moina Michael to write a poem of her own:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows of fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She also got the idea of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day to honor the fallen. She wore one, sold poppies to friends and acquaintances, and gave the money to needy servicemen.

In 1971, when Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday. They said that we would celebrate in on the last Monday in May.

Time passes and some of us still remember what Memorial Day meant, at least after World War I.

The Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts have been putting a candle at each soldier's grave site in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park since 1998, and the 3rd U.S. Infantry still, to my knowledge, places small American flags at the quarter-million or so gravestones in the Arlington National Cemetery.

Also in 1998, the people of Kansas City, Missouri, approved a 1/2 cent sales tax to raise money to turn the Liberty Memorial (requires Flash 7) from a crumbling wreck back into America's largest World War I memorial. The memorial opened November 11 (Armistice Day), 1926. Saturday, May 25th, 2002, the memorial re-opened.

Here's a parting thought, carved on the tomb of explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809):

Immaturus obi: sed to felicior annos
Vivemeos, Bona Republica! Vive tuos

(I died young; but thou, O Good Republic, be more fortunate,
Live out my years! Live your own.)

As I wrote the first draft of this piece, on the Saturday before Memorial Day 2002, northbound traffic was backed up two blocks in downtown Sauk Centre: people were heading for the lake country. A year later, the detail which impressed itself on me was the number of garage sales. One, just down the street, even had a line of plastic pennants strung between two trees: and a line backed up from the front door two thirds of the way to the street.

I got my facts from the 1992 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia, www., Fox News, and the Liberty Memorial Museum (requires Flash 7). The quote is from Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett 14th Edition, 1968, p. 1105



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Text is copyright Brian H. Gill 2002


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This page last updated: December 19, 2010