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.”
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.)
by Archie P. McDonald - Order Here
Source Accounts of the Civil War
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