Memorial Day – the history and a challenge


Next Monday is a National Holiday set aside to remember all who have given their lives in the wars in which America has fought since our own Revolutionary War.  In 1966, Waterloo, New York was officially designated, by President Lyndon Johnson, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.  It all began on May 5th of 1866 when a man in Waterloo, NY decided it would be a nice idea to decorate the graves of soldiers killed in the Civil War.  A former Civil War General who was a town Official, took the idea to others  and they organized parades, got bands together and held marches to a half-dozen grave yards where Civil War dead , from the North & South were buried. Graves were decorated with crosses, flowers  and flags and speeches were made. Hence the day was originally called Decoration Day.

This was repeated on May 5th of 1867 and then again on May 5th of 1868.  General John Logan who, at that time, was the first to command what was then called The Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order that established a Decoration Day to be observed on May 30th.  Slowly all of the Union states recognized the holiday and by 1890 it was celebrated nationally by the Northern States.

The South refused to celebrate the day and held their own observances. But, after World War I, when it was decided that all Americans who were killed in any war in which we participated would be remembered in that days ceremonies, the Confederate South decided to join in and it became almost a national holiday.  It is now celebrated by nearly every state on the same day in May with the exception of several southern states that still honored those killed in the Civil War on separate occasions.

Until 1971, we observed Decoration Day on  May 30th but, when Congress passed the National Holidays Act, they mandated that all national holidays be celebrated in conjunction with a week-end so they set Memorial Day as a holiday to be observed on the 4th Monday of May each year.  There are about a half-dozen states in the south that, in addition to celebrating the 4th Monday as a national holiday, still set aside an additional day to honor just their Confederate dead of the Civil War.

Now, have you ever given thought to just how many people we are honoring on this special day?  As near as can be calculated, the number of people who have been killed in defense of the Stars and Stripes is nearly 1, 400,000.  This goes all the way back to 1776 and the American Revolutionary War and comes forward to include casualties so far in the war in Afghanistan.

Of course, the greatest number of war dead came in our own home-grown war, the Civil War, where brother fought brother.  Over 600,000 were killed in a 4 year span, that amounted to almost 600 souls sent to Heaven every day.

Our two-year stint in WW I, which was supposed to be the big war to end all wars, took the lives of nearly 120,000 of our young men and women, but it was over-shadowed by  WWII,  which cost us over 400,000 of our best. In that four years of madness, we gave to the tune of more than 400 souls each day of the war.  The most controversial war, the one in Vietnam, cost nearly 60,000 men and women and our “police-action” war in Korea took almost 37,000, dying to fight to a stand-still.  The remainder of the casualties came from  “small wars” fought all around the world in defense of liberty.

In addition to the known dead, there are over 8000 missing-in-action bodies strewn around the world, which also must be counted as deceased.

Not more than just a few years ago, nearly every incorporated city and quite a few smaller ones, held a parade with marching bands, fire engines, riders on horseback, boy scouts and floats in celebration of Memorial Day. Cookouts were held after the parade and for at least one day each year, in addition to the 4th of July, patriotism ran high.

Quite a few of the larger cities still celebrate with a parade and some of the very small rural areas show their spirit but there are a lot of “tweeners” who love their country but have too much going on to spend three hours at a parade.

I’ve got a challenge for you this year…next Monday, May 28th, find a parade somewhere close by, grab the whole family and sit for a couple of hours enjoying some Americana and honoring those who have given their lives for our country. Or maybe you could go to a grave yard and take a couple of small flags with you,  there’s bound to be a couple of GIs there who could use a new flag.  But most importantly, in what ever you do next Monday, please take a moment to remember the reason for the holiday.

Don Langrehr

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2 Responses to Memorial Day – the history and a challenge

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this article. I remember parades and wish that I made it to one today. It wS so heartwarming to see flags adorning homes in our neighborhood today. Not a lot but still some. Miss the outer banks of north Carolina where we have spent so many memorial days in the past. Why is it that patriotism seems stronger in smaller towns and communities? Again, many thanks!

  2. Pingback: Farewell to a friend | The Zone Magazine

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