Memorial Day

Remembering Our Fallen Heroes

A Brief History of Memorial Day

Decoration Day

The morning of May 5, 1865. The war weary townspeople of Waterloo, New York, continued the recent Sunday ritual of placing flowers, wreaths, and crosses on the graves of their fallen soldiers in their local cemetery. Much the same was happening throughout the country, in both the Northern and Southern states, as Americans slowly healed the wounds that ravaged our young nation during the Great Civil War.

That same day, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, suggested at a social gathering that a more organized and official honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War. That idea was embraced by those in attendance, and from there a movement began to take shape.

On May 5, 1866, additional civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemeteries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and a local clergyman. The ceremonies were repeated again on May 5, 1867.

The following year, Retired Major General Jonathan A. Logan planned another ceremony, this time for the soldiers who survived the war. He led the veterans through town to the cemetery to decorate their comrades' graves with flags. This group was generally referred to as the "Old Guard." It was not a happy celebration, it was a memorial. The townspeople called it Decoration Day. During that memorial ceremony, the General delivered the following proclamation excerpt;

Memorial Day

Retired Major General Loan's proclamation;

    "The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country and during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves even before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet, carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920).

At the first official memorial, flowers were placed on the graves of both the Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Poppy Day

In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael (the mother of the Poppy) replied with her own poem:

    We cherish too, the Poppy red
    That grows on fields where valor led,
    It seems to signal to the skies
    That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one and sell poppies to her friends and co-workers, the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later, Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael, and when she returned to France, she also made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries.

In 1921, the Franco-American Children's League sold poppies nationally to benefit the war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later, their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

Since the late 50's, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry have placed a small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.

The first state to officially recognize Memorial Day as a holiday was New York, in 1873. 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 World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May, an official declaration passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act.

Several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings.

©2003 Morelli Publishing
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