America has steadfastly set aside a day to commemorate those who died in battle. Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, and a loss of 620,000 soldiers on both sides. According to news reports, that’s just 20,000 fewer than the total number of Americans who died in all other conflicts combined.
That war’s devastating impact on communities led to spontaneous commemorations — masses of flowers in cemeteries North and South, in some cases laid by the same women on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. To those mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, no loss was less heartbreaking than another.
A few more facts to ponder as we gather with loved ones, fire up the barbecue, and remember those who gave it all:
• April 1866 was the first organized, community ceremony in Carbondale, Ill., with a parade of veterans and address by Union Maj. Gen. John Logan.
• Waterloo, N.Y., began holding its ceremony annually in May, earning Congressional recognition as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day ceremonies.
• On May 5, 1868, Gen. Logan issued an order setting aside May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country,” and suggested it be “kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.”
• The focus on grave adornment was why it was originally called Decoration Day. Although use of the term “Memorial Day” goes back to 1882, it wasn’t officially renamed until 1967.
• The date was May 30 until 1971, when the Monday Holiday Law shifted it to the last Monday in May.
• While not specifically required, Memorial Day traditions include flying the flag at half-staff until noon, then raising it to the top until sunset.
• Taps, the 24-note bugle call played at military funerals and services, originated in 1862 when Union Gen. Dan Butterfield tired of the nightly lights-out call. Butterfield and his brigade’s bugler rewrote the tune.
• John McCrea’s World War I poem “In Flanders Fields” inspired the wearing of red poppies. In 1915, Georgia teacher and war volunteer Moina Michael successfully campaigned to make the poppy an official tribute to veterans.
• In 2000, Congress and President Clinton established a National Moment of Remembrance, a one-minute pause on Memorial Day at 3 p.m. as an act of national unity to remember the fallen.
“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion … If silence is ever golden, it must be beside the graves of men whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem the music of which can never be sung.” — James Garfield, U.S. president and Civil War general
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.