Strait On: Memorial Day – Then and Now

Photo courtesy of Rusty Strait
Rusty Strait.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior reporter

The Grand Army of the Republic (an organization composed of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois after the Civil War) came up with the idea to decorate the graves of Union veterans with flowers. Before long, all Civil War dead were included in the tribute.
On May 30, 1868, General John A. Logan declared that May 30 should be the day set aside to honor the men who gave up their lives “in defense of their country, during the late rebellion.”
This date was chosen not because it was the anniversary of any particular battle, but rather, “an optimal date for flowers to be in bloom,” according to one report from the White House.
Not many are aware that three years prior to that official declaration, the city of Waterloo, New York declared a memorial day in 1865, one year after the war ended. It became an annual, community-wide social event when businesses closed their doors. Parades and picnics became part of the ritual that included decorating the dead heroes’ graves with flowers and flags.

Civil War tears apart nation; families
For many decades it was known as Decoration Day; when mourners and survivors went to the cemeteries and placed flowers on the graves of warriors who died to “preserve the Union” in America’s bloodiest and most deadly war.
A war in which more than 602,000 brave and purposeful young men and teenagers gallantly fought and died on fields of blood. One side defending the right to secede from the Union in order to maintain their way of living, which included the ownership of slaves. The other to preserve the Union and give freedom to a black population that had never known freedom since their capture in Africa and exportation to the cotton fields and slave masters to that part of the United States that became, following the first shot fired on Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, The Confederate States of America – known today as simply, “The South.”
Families were split – some never to be reunited. Brother against brother. Father against son. North against South – a knife thrust into relationships leaving scars that still exist like torrid echoes of an unspeakable holocaust that simply will not go away.
Celebration of Decoration Day began in a scattered manner in just a few states: Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

Decoration Day honors Civil War dead
On that first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield delivered a speech at Arlington National Cemetery to an audience of 5,000 participants who gathered to honor and decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who fought and killed each other – coming to rest in a hallowed spot where all became comrades in death, finally at peace with one another.
Eventually, in the near East and South, the ritual morphed into a time where all deaths were equally honored by placing flower tributes to the dearly departed. In some parts of the South, particularly, it would be an all-day event with picnic baskets and family reunions. A time to celebrate the dead, not by mourning, but by making it a festive occasion.
By the end of World War I, folks were honoring the dead from all of America’s wars. To settle the dispute of where and when Memorial Day originated, on May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson, declared Waterloo, New York, the origin since that city had been the first place to celebrate such an event three years before General Logan.
There have been other changes and declarations over the years. The hard and fast date of May 30 was abandoned in 1971 when Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, to be celebrated the last Monday in May (continuing the tradition of giving workers Mondays off if a national holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday).
Decoration Day, for some American southern rural and mountain communities, takes place on a Sunday in late spring or early summer. This includes family cemeteries, where generations of families may be interred and brings celebrants from all over the world to hold reunions with distant relatives they may never have met before, or renew relationships of long standing. This is often in conjunction with a church service and a potluck dinner or picnic. This particular ritual preceded the Civil War and adds color to an already colorful event.
In 1868, memorial celebrations took place in 183 cemeteries in 27 states. By 1869, a total of 336 cemeteries participated.
The President of the United States places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown on Memorial Day, and members of Congress typically go home and make speeches in local or national cemeteries, many of which are located near Confederate battlefields.
On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains until noon and then is raised to full-staff again for the remainder of the day.
To others, Memorial Day is just another long weekend of sports. The Indianapolis 500 runs the Sunday before Memorial Day and has been a big Memorial Day event since 1911; beginning in 1961 NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 is held later that same afternoon; the Memorial Tournament has been a national golfing event since1976; and the final of the NCAA Division I Men’s Lacrosse Championship is currently held on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day has been dubbed a “modern cult of the dead.” Is that a religious theme or just another Madison Avenue sales gimmick? However we choose to honor our fallen heroes, let us all take time to revere the date since so many have died to preserve it.

Just sayin’.
rustystrait@gmail.com

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