A History of Decoration Day in the USA…
May 28, 2017 Veterans Corner by Ronald Verini
Tomorrow marks the 46th official anniversary of “Memorial Day” here in the United States, which was declared by President Richard Nixon in 1971. However, before it was called Memorial Day it was known as “Decoration Day”, and had been celebrated, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, since May of 1868. On May 5, 1868 an organization of Civil War Union Veterans known as the ‘Grand Army of the Republic’ (GAR), thought that a day should be set aside for our citizens to pay respect and decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan of the GAR declared that actually May 30th should be the designated day, for more flowers would be in bloom across the country. Thus, the 1st large observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery. The ceremonies were centered around the veranda of the Arlington mansion and presided over by Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. After the speeches, children from the ‘Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home, and members of the GAR, strolled through the cemetery scattering flowers upon the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers while singing hymns and reciting prayers.
Though the celebration at Arlington was considered the first ‘official’ observance of decorating and paying tribute to our fallen military, there were many towns around the country that proclaimed to be the first to hold such an observance.
In April of 1866 the widows and ladies of Columbus, Mississippi visited the graves of confederate soldiers who had fallen during the battle of Shiloh. Disturbed at the sight of the barren graves of the Union soldiers nearby, they placed some flowers on their graves as well. Other cities and towns also claimed to have started the observance of decorating graves of our fallen soldiers, and they were Richmond, Virginia, Boalsburg, Pa., Columbus and Macon, Georgia and Carbondale, Illinois.
The ‘official birthplace’ however was declared in 1966 by then President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress, and their decision was Waterloo, New York because Waterloo said they had the first ceremony that was ‘community-wide’ with businesses and schools closing.
So by the end of the 19th Century ceremonies were all being held on May 30th throughout the entire nation. All State Legislatures had passed proclamations for the day and both the Army and Navy adopted proper regulations to be observed at all military facilities. But it was not until after WWI that the day was to ‘honor all’ who have died and given their lives in ALL American wars.
The estimate of the crowd attending the first observance at Arlington numbered about 5,000 people. Gen. Logan’s orders to all the GAR Veterans at all the posts in 1868, “to decorate the graves with the choicest flowers of springtime”, and urged “that we should guard their graves with sacred vigilence…letting pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic”.
There is a very long and old tradition in our world that ‘honors’ those who have given their lives in war. About 24 centuries ago, Pericles, a leader of the Athenians offered the following tribute to those ‘fallen Heroes’ of the Peloponnesian Wars. He said, “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men”.
“Please this “Memorial Day”, would you take some time to reflect and give thanks to all the men and women who have given their lives, that we may enjoy the liberties by which we live. And when you see a Veteran, please tell him, “Thank you for Your Service to us and our Great Country”. Ronald Verini.