Salute to the Troops: The History of Memorial Day

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By John Reichley / 05.25.2016
Leavenworth Times

This commemorative Memorial Day edition hopefully will assist in getting readers in the mood to celebrate, commemorate or do whatever they want to call it on Memorial Day. This feature will touch on the history of Memorial Day, how some communities celebrate it and provide a general understanding of what the day is, or should be, about.

Some publications are proclaiming the 2016 Memorial Day as the 150th anniversary of this remembrance day. That may or may not be entirely accurate. And there is even an official “birthplace of Memorial Day,” a small town in New York that convinced Congress more than a half century ago of its claim to the title. But that is not without dispute.

All who have attempted to trace the origin of Memorial Day agree it began soon after the Civil War ended. And since April 2015 was the 150th anniversary of that happening, the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day should probably be soon after.

When the Civil War ended, both sides formed veterans organizations. Union veterans could join the national Grand Army of the Republic, whose first commander was Gen. John A. Logan. He declared May 30 to be the date to remember the war dead from the Civil War, a date chosen because no major battle had been fought on that date.

He further declared that the first celebration would be in 1868, so lots of folks say that was the first happening of the future Memorial Day. But not so fast. Researchers have uncovered evidence that the first celebration was performed by a ladies organization in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1866. But the Georgia commemoration was not sustained, which is a key element in something being declared the first. It also has to be ongoing.

Nine days later, in far away Waterloo, New York, merchants organized a similar day to commemorate the 58 Civil War soldiers from Waterloo buried in the city cemetery. At that celebration, businesses were closed, a parade was held and speeches were made. And the soldiers’ graves were decorated with flowers. And that tradition has continued annually to this day.

It took quite a while for Congress to finally declare that the tradition of celebrating what is today Memorial Day officially began in Waterloo, New York, but it did so declare in 1966, a century later.

Logan’s idea for a national celebration across the land did not begin until May 30, 1868, two years after Waterloo’s first celebration. And since a primary event during the day would be decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers, Logan declared it to be Decoration Day. He called on people in all states to “Strew flowers or otherwise decorate the graves of comrades who died defending the country.” That would preclude soldiers who died for the Confederacy, but former Confederate states began their own decorating of graves on different dates, a tradition that continued until after WW I.

At the first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, Gen. James Garfield spoke to some 5,000 people who had come to decorate 20,000 Union and Confederate graves. By 1890, all northern states had joined Logan’s call to decorate graves on May 30, which in all northern states was a state holiday.

And so things went until 1968, when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that changed all national holidays to a Monday so federal workers would get a three-day holiday. The same bill changed the name of Decoration Day to Memorial Day.

Some date changes didn’t sit well with a lot of people, and Congress quickly changed some holidays to their original dates, such as the Fourth of July and Armistice Day, which changed to Veterans Day on whatever day Nov. 11 fell on.

But since the date of May 30 was not tied to any specific event, people were OK with it being changed to the third Monday in May. And thus it remains.

So what should one do on Memorial Day? Leavenworth has two national cemeteries, and both contain thousands of graves of veterans of all wars since the War of 1812, so a real good idea would be to drive or walk through one or both of them. I know of no other area that has two national cemeteries so close, and our two, plus Mount Calvary Cemetery, have the graves of 19 Medal of Honor recipients.

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