Friday, May 28, 2010

The Meaning of Memorial Day

In this vintage postcard, an aging Union soldier doffs his cap at a Confederate Memorial where a wreath lies in remembrance.

Memorial Day was once called Decoration Day, and its origins go back to the War Between the States. It is something worth thinking about as America gets ready to hit the road and light up the barbecue on this three-day weekend.

The U.S. Civil War was the worst war in our nation's history, with the total number of dead in that war approaching 700,000. To compare, the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in World War II battles was 291,000. And that war was global.

Thus, with a total population in the U.S. in 1860 of about 30 million, you can imagine what a loss of 700,000 soldiers would mean to families in both the North and the South.

Before the war was even over, many women in the South had begun to set aside a day to decorate the graves of the war dead. It was a spontaneous gesture and various days were set aside for remembrance.

This vintage postcard depicts two soldiers, one from the North and one from the South, joining in saluting those who gave their lives in the Civil War.

At war's end, there was a gradual effort at healing as families in both the North and South found union in their common losses. In 1868, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, proclaimed May 30 as Memorial Day and it was then that the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery were decorated with flowers and flags, a tradition that continues to this very day.

States in the North and the South didn't get together on the date for Memorial Day until after World War I. Later, in the 20th century, Congress decided to make the original day, May 30, into a three-day weekend by declaring that it would always fall on a Monday. It was then that the meaning of the day began to be lost.

There is a movement afoot to return the day to something more than a day for Memorial Day sales. In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that urged Americans to set aside a brief time, at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day, to pause and reflect on the blessings of freedom and to silently thank those who died in its defense.

It is not much to ask to thank those who gave their highest measure of devotion "...that this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." On Monday at 3:00 p.m. take the hand of someone you love and say a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for those who sacrificed for us. And another that this nation will one day find peace.

My father's flag. He was lucky. He survived World War II without a scratch and died a peaceful death. May it ever be so with our veterans.

Add to Google Reader or Homepage

Subscribe to Robin Chapman News


Dave said...

Hi Robin, As a U. S. Navy veteran (8 Years) and both parents navy veterans, it is nice to know about the history of Memorial Day. Thanks Robin!

Robin Chapman said...

Thanks Dave. I've often thought of writing a book about the history of our holidays. They weren't all originally intended to be a time for sales at Sears!