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The History of Memorial Day, From a Veteran

Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought in defense of freedom throughout American history.

Standing as if at attention, the perfectly aligned white headstones surrounded several hundred black folding chairs.

In the back row an elderly man sat alone.  I took a seat next to him.

A few minutes had passed when he leaned over and said, “I feel that I should be here today to pay my respects.”

We engaged in conversation, and I learned that he was a veteran of the Korean War, that he had served for over two decades in the Army.

“There are guys here that gave their lives for me, for us,” he continued, “and that is why Memorial Day is so dear to me and many other veterans.”

On that cloudy and windy afternoon in the veterans’ section of a local cemetery several years ago, hundreds of veterans, civic officials and families had gathered to remember those who had served a cause greater than themselves.


The First Decoration Day

This sense of service to the fallen began when Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order Number 11.

The directive stated that “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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Legend has it that Logan selected the day only because it was not the anniversary of any Civil War battle.

Soon dubbed Decoration Day, future president James Garfield delivered the day’s inaugural speech at Arlington National Cemetery.  Close to 5,000 individuals listened and then decorated the final resting sites of over 15,000 Confederate and Union soldiers.

“I am oppressed with a sense of impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,” Garfield began.

“If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, who lives were more significant than speech ….”


The Start of Memorial Day

That initial observance, and the many that followed, honored only those lost during the Civil War.  This changed, however, in the wake of the First World War when Americans began to honor the memory of all of the nation’s fallen.

With this alteration came a change in name.  In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which declared Memorial Day a federal holiday (the solons wanted a three-day weekend) that was to be observed on the last Monday in May.

Today – May 30, 2019 – Americans have the opportunity to remember all who have given the last full measure.


The Day’s Traditions

Cities and towns today across the nation host Memorial Day parades, often incorporating military personnel and the members of veterans’ organizations.

Away from the parade routes, many American families respect the day by visiting cemeteries, where some leave flags and flowers on veterans’ headstones.

After the last note of Taps faded, many of the attendees on that cloudy day began to walk in silence among the headstones.  Some stopped to share a thought; others to bow their heads.

“I came here today to remember my grandson who died in Iraq in 2007,” the veteran still sitting next to me said.

“He is gone, and I still feel an emptiness, so I am here to pay my respects to him and to all those who have given their lives in defense of this country.”

Powerful words from a veteran sitting in the back row who understands the meaning and history of Memorial Day.

Read about what it means to be a “Grateful American”, on Memorial Day, and always.


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