Most of us are still waiting for things to completely open up again after over a year of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For many of us that means upcoming events like the Indianapolis 500, family gatherings, picnics, fishing, boating and the unofficial first long weekend of Summer and yes all of these occur on the same day. We call it Memorial Day, but it’s not supposed to about these things but remembering those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom.
Waterloo, New York was officially designated as the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May of 1966, but there are more than two dozen cities and towns that claim to be the place where it really started. Most of us know this, but many have forgotten when and how it all began.
That first “Decoration Day” held on May 5, 1866 in Waterloo, New York was more of a local event similar to the same remembrances that were held in various cities and towns all over the country.
The first “Decoration Day” ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery was in 1868. The graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there were decorated by the 5,000 people in attendance. Future President General Ulysses S. Grant was in attendance and General James A. Garfield, another future President of the United States, gave a speech. About 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War which is the largest number of Americans killed in any war. For comparison 407,300 Americans died from all causes in WWII.
General John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and a U.S. Congressman, first proclaimed Decoration Day on May 5th,1889.The formal declaration in his General Order no. 11 as quoted in usmemorialday.org Logan said “The 30th of May 1889 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Apparently the date was chosen specifically because it was not the anniversary of any battle.
New York, in 1873, was the first state to recognize the holiday. Back to usmemorialday.org “By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after WW I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honor Americans who died in any war).”
In modern times, the largest military cemetery is the Arlington National Cemetery. I visited Arlington back in 1969 while attending a broadcasting school in Washington, D.C. and the most striking memory I have was the “Eternal Flame” at the grave of President John F. Kennedy.
My first recollection of that cemetery was from a scene in my favorite science fiction movie “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” In one scene Michael Rennies’s character Klaatu asks the little boy Bobby, played by Billy Gray of Father Knows Best fame, if all of those people buried there died in wars. The answer was most of them and the boy’s father was buried there. The alien Klatu found that startling because he said where he came from they didn’t have wars.
Here in the Willamette Valley, local wineries stage events over the holiday weekend and cemeteries hold their Memorial Day remembrance services. Hopefully, next year these events will be open to the normal crowds of people who want to attend.
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