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  • Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

    Memorial Day

    by Archie P. McDonald
    Archie McDonald Ph.D.
    When Americans pause at the ceremonial beginning of summer to honor those who gave their lives in military service they are participating in our national version of ancient rites. Greeks had their March Commemoration of the Dead, Roman’s placed flowers on the graves of parents, and the Japanese Feast of Lanterns paid homage to ancestors, all in ritual reconciliation of the rebirth associated with spring.

    Our version came from the Civil War, and many places candidate as the “first” remembrance of the nearly 700,000 deaths that war produced. Miss Emma Hunter decorated the tomb of her father, Col. James Hunter, commander of the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment at Gettysburg, in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and then the graves of all soldiers in the graveyard. At Belle Isle in the James River, bouquets appeared on the graves of Union dead from the Confederate prison there on May 30, 1866. And the ladies of Columbus, Mississippi, placed flowers on soldier’s graves—Union and Confederate—on April 25, 1866.

    Most credit pharmacist Henry C. Wells, who suggested decorating the graves of Union dead in Waterloo, New York, with beginning the process that resulted in a national day of remembrance. Wells interested Union General John B. Murray in the project, and there, on May 5, 1866, flags few at half-mast, black draperies mingled with evergreen adorned gravesites, and veteran and civic groups marched to Waterloo’s three cemeteries for religious observances.

    Waterloo repeated the ceremony in subsequent years and the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union army’s version of our later American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, joined them in 1868 but changed the date to May 30. General John A. Logan gave the order to all GAR posts to do so, but many believe that Mrs. Logan was the reason why. In Richmond, Virginia, she had seen flowers placed on graves of war dead, was touched by the thoughtfulness it revealed, and suggested to her husband that the GAR should do the same.

    Logan’s order was dated May 5—date of the original Waterloo ceremony—but activities shifted to the later date and were observed for the first time at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Then, feeling that the occasion justified it, the GAR called on government to make the observance permanent. New York became the first state to legalize May 30 as Memorial Day, although then it was called Decoration Day because of the placing of flowers on graves.

    As the United States accumulated more wars, Civil Warriors lost their exclusive remembrance. In 1958, May 30 was selected for two Unknown Soldiers from World War II and from Korea—one from the European Theatre and one from the Pacific—to share the tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I in Arlington National Cemetery.

    Some think of the day as the annual return of the Indianapolis 500 automobile race or the occasion for an outing at the beach or lake before the hot, grinding days of summer. But it is much more than that. In many communities there are parades, speeches, and prayers; flowers decorate graves of military veterans; and for a day we are united as Americans who acknowledge our debt for nationhood and freedom by remembering, as was done first in November 1863 by A. Lincoln, “that these honored dead shall not have died in vain.”

    © Archie P. McDonald
    All Things Historical
    May 12, 2008 column
    A syndicated column in over 70 East Texas newspapers
    (The East Texas Historical Association provides this column as a public service. Archie P. McDonald is director of the Association and author of more than 20 books on Texas.)

    Related Topics:
    World War II | World War I

    Books by Archie P. McDonald - Order Here

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    Primary Source Accounts of the Civil War
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