Each year, the people of the United States set aside the last Monday in May to remember our fallen service members. The observance is a recent addition to the federal calendar, however. And how America’s various communities choose to observe Memorial Day depends entirely on how devoted those community leaders are to the act of remembrance.
To many, Memorial Day is the official start of summer. Some communities hold parades, conduct wreath-laying ceremonies, offer speeches, and have picnics. Such celebrations are usually great fun for children — but when they put away their childish things and become adults, they realize there is something more important than grilling hamburgers and cooking hot dogs. They may notice that their older relatives and neighbors are visiting cemeteries. Why? To remember those who gave all they had to give in service to their country and their respective communities. Those fallen servicemen and women were their sons and daughters, spouses, and siblings.
Until 1971, Americans knew this day as Decoration Day. In all honesty, I do not recall ever celebrating Decoration Day. I remember picnics and parades, speeches, and musical performances (local bands, of course) on the Fourth of July — but I cannot now recall a single observance of Decoration Day, not even after I joined the Marines.
Decoration Day was the brainchild of a former Civil War general by the name of John Logan. Trained as a lawyer, Logan served as prosecuting attorney in Shiloh, Illinois, before turning toward politics in 1860. He served his home state as a state representative, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a U.S. Senator. Decoration Day began as a Congressional proclamation in 1868. Logan selected the last Monday in May, we are told because by then, America’s flowers were in full bloom.
As part of his legacy, there are ten places in the United States named in honor of General Logan from Illinois (his home state), counties in Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Dakota, a college in Carterville, Illinois, high schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, a pub in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Fort Logan Cemetery. A street named in his honor in Michigan was later changed to become part of the longest street in America, Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard.
The American Civil War was brutal — a conflict that many Americans observed firsthand. With 650,000 war dead, nearly everyone in the United States was in some way affected. So, it should be no surprise to learn that in the years following the war, American communities came together to tend to the graves of those who perished in it. These emotions prompted many Americans, if not most of them, to appreciate General Logan’s efforts. In the photo (left), a woman can be observed tending to the grave of a loved one in Upstate New York (c. 1868) (Library of Congress Photo).
Still, Decoration Day was not an official federal day of observance. Logan offered a Congressional resolution calling for a day to be set aside, but it would be up to America’s communities and state governments to implement Decoration Day programs. By 30 May 1890, all former-Union (Northern) states adopted that date as their official Decoration Day.
James Garfield offered the first Decoration Day speech on 30 May 1868. At the time, Mr. Garfield was a congressman from Ohio and a former Union General. He would later serve as the 20th President of the United States. Garfield delivered his speech at the entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery, established in 1864 (the former home of Robert E. Lee). After his speech, 5,000 visitors entered the cemetery to visit and tend the graves of fallen soldiers.
Over subsequent years, people began referring to Decoration Day as Memorial Day. It became a day to honor all of America’s fallen soldiers, whether they served the North or South — particularly after the brutal slaughters of the First and Second World Wars. No one spoke of Decoration Day following World War II — it was always referred to as Memorial Day.
In 1968 — amid the Vietnam War, when no one was paying attention — the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The Act placed all major U.S. holidays on specific Mondays to give federal employees three-day weekends. Memorial Day was one of those ‘specially selected’ holidays, along with Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, and Columbus Day. The Act also made Memorial Day the official name of that holiday. The law went into effect in 1971; by then, there were no more Civil War veterans — but millions of veterans from subsequent wars.
1971 was when America began going to the mall to celebrate lower prices on furniture instead of going to the cemetery to tidy up grave markers. The proper observance of Memorial Day is that all Americans pause for a moment of silence at 3:00 p.m. local time to honor the 1.3 million men and women of the Armed Forces who gave up their lives for their country. Few people today bother — which might help explain what’s wrong with America these days.