Back in post-Civil War 1868, Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic General John A. Logan declared May 30th a Memorial Day “for the purpose of strewing flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion…”
That first National Day of Remembrance was called Decoration Day and was first commemorated on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. Some 50,000 people decorated about 20,000 graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
However, that actually was not the first such day of remembrance.
While doing research for a Civil War book he was working on, Yale University history professor David Bright uncovered America’s first Memorial Day…
It took place on May 1, 1865 at what was left of a Confederate prison camp, formerly the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, in Charleston, South Carolina. That day, some 10,000 people, mostly freed Black slaves and some white missionaries, paraded around the racetrack, honoring the 260 Union troops who had died there.
Among them, several members of Black Union regiments, a Black minister reading verses from the Bible, and 3,000 Black children carrying flowers and singing “John Brown’s Body.”
One of the song’s earliest versions begins with the line, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in its grave…” followed by the second stanza’s “He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord…”
The next stanza leads off with, “John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back…” and the fourth with “John Brown died that the slaves might be free.” The song ends with, “The stars above in Heaven now are looking kindly down… His soul goes marching on.”
Two weeks before that first Memorial Day, former slaves and Black workmen gave each of those Union soldiers a proper burial and then erected a protective fence with a sign that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
By the Civil War’s end on April 9, 1865, some 620,000 soldiers had died.
More wars followed shedding even more American blood. Among the best known:
- World War I (1917-1918): 116,516 military deaths
- World War II (1938-19450: 405,899 military deaths
- Vietnam War (1965-1973): 58,000 military deaths
- Korean War (1950-1953): 36,516 military deaths
Nowadays, though, most of us love that we have not just one day off but three in a row to kick back, fire up the grill, veg out, or get of out of town, ignoring that memorial means “something that keeps remembrance alive.”
We seem to have either forgotten or chosen not to remember and/or care.
The shift from a one day, May 30, observance of Memorial Day to a three-day, federal holiday weekend came about in 1971 under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.
Not everyone applauded, however.
From 1989 until his death in 2012, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a World War II veteran, strove to get Memorial Day changed back to May 30, whatever day of the week it might fall. Every year, he reintroduced his bill, S.70. To this day, it continues to be read and referred to the Judiciary Committee annually, but to no avail.
Former Representative Colleen Hanabusa, also from Hawaii, took up the cause in 2013, saying, “… Many Americans have begun to celebrate the long weekend as the beginning of summer rather than honoring those who died courageously in battle.”
S.70 comes up, but, to this day, the three-day weekend holds.
So, to at least remind us of the significance of Memorial Day, in 2000, then President Clinton created the National Moment of Remembrance, asking that we silently bow our heads and remember our military dead and give thanks to all serve at precisely 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day for one moment of silence. One minute, that’s all.
In 2020, along came TAPS ACROSS AMERICA “when CBS News’s “On the Road” correspondent Steve Hartman teamed up with retired Air Force bugler Jari Villanueva, founder of TAPS FOR VETERANS. The two men invited buglers and other musicians to sound Taps from their front porches all at the same time. The massive, simultaneous event replaced picnics, parades, and other celebrations cancelled due to the COVID pandemic.”
It will again in 2022.
This year, Memorial Day again falls on the 30th. All that is asked of us is just that one moment of silence, pausing to remember, pausing to come together, pausing to be grateful for the sacrifices of all who serve, their families, too.
~ With my thanks, Carol