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Memorial Day, a Time for Healing
History and Meaning of Our Memorial Day Holiday

By: John Shepler

Memorial Day, perhaps more than any other holiday, was born of human necessity. Deep inside all of us lies a fundamental desire to make sense of life and our place in it and the world. What we have been given, what we will do with it and what we will pass to the next generation is all part of an unfolding history, a continuum that links one soul to another.

Abraham Lincoln pondered these thoughts in the late fall of 1863. His darkest fear was that he might well be the last president of the United States, a nation embroiled in the self-destruction of what he described as "a great civil war..testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure." He began his remarks with those words as he stood on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19th of that year.

The minute's speech that became known as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address turned into what might be called the first observance of Memorial Day. Lincoln's purpose that day was to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the thousands of men, both living and dead, who consecrated that soil in the sacrifice of battle. Said Abraham Lincoln: "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom..."

The next year, a pleasant Sunday in October of 1864 found a teenage girl, Emma Hunter, gathering flowers in a Boalsburg, Pennsylvania cemetery to place on the grave of her father. He was a surgeon who had died in service to the Union Army in that great Civil War. Nearby, Mrs. Elizabeth Meyer was strewing flowers upon the grave of her son Amos, a private who had fallen on the last day of the battle of Gettysburg. Emma respectfully took a few of her flowers and put them on the grave of Amos. Mrs. Meyer, in turn, laid some of her freshly cut blooms on the grave of Dr. Hunter. Both women felt a lightening of their burdens by this act of honoring each other's loss, and agreed to meet again the next year. This time they agreed they would also visit the graves of those who had no one left to honor them.

Both Emma Hunter and Elizabeth Meyer returned to the cemetery in Boalsburg on the day they had agreed, Independence Day, July 4, 1865. This time, though, they found themselves joined by nearly all the residents of the town. Dr. George Hall, a clergyman, offered a sermon, and the community joined in decorating every grave in the cemetery with flowers and flags. The custom became an annual event at Boalsburg, and it wasn't long before neighboring communities established their own "Decoration Day" each spring.

About that same time in 1865, a druggist in Waterloo, New York, Henry C. Welles, began promoting the idea of decorating the graves of Civil War veterans. He gained the support of the Seneca County Clerk, General John B. Murray, and they formed a committee to make wreaths, crosses and bouquets for each veteran's grave. On May 5, 1866, war veterans marching to martial music led processions to each of three cemeteries, where the graves were decorated and speeches were made by General Murray and local clergymen. The village itself was also decorated with flags at half-mast, evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers.

Also, as the Civil War was coming to a close in the spring of 1865, Women's Auxiliaries of the North and South moved from providing relief to the families and soldiers on their own sides to joining in efforts to preserve and decorate the graves of both sides. A woman of French extraction and leader of the Virginia women's movement, Cassandra Oliver Moncure, took responsibility of coordinating the activities of several groups into a combined ceremony on May 30. It is said that she picked that day because it corresponded to the Day of Ashes in France, a solemn day that commemorates the return of the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte to France from St. Helena.

In 1868, General John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a General Order establishing May 30 as an official memorial day to pay respect to all those who had died, in war or peace. His order was that the men in his command should spend a portion of that day policing the gravesites, decorating them and supporting whatever ceremonies they could. He hoped that this would spark enough interest to make Memorial Day a permanent national observance. In the intervening decades, Memorial Day has been observed every year, though the day was re-established from May 30 to the last Monday in May. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson also sanctioned Waterloo, New York as the "official" birthplace of Memorial Day because of the extensive ceremonies established there in 1866.

Perhaps General Logan was simply making official what the nation yearned for and spontaneously began to form after the near total destruction of the Civil War. It is that sharing of loss, honoring the sacrifices of those who made possible the lives we enjoy today, and family connections across the generations that keep Memorial Day in our hearts...and always will.

You may also be interested in reading A Celebration of Thanksgiving and adding your thoughts to our online gratitude journal.

Support the Troops - Visit the official Department of Defense websites to see how you can support our troops and their families.

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Books of Interest:

Memorial Day by Mir Tamim Ansary. Introduces Memorial Day, explaining the historical events behind it, how it became a holiday, and how it is observed.

The Greatest Generation by: TomBrokaw. They survived the Stock Market Crash, The Great Depression, the horrors of World War II and went on to build the world we live in today. Our parents, our grandparents. What experiences made them special and able to handle the toughest that life could throw at them. This is their story, and, really, our story.

The Greatest Generation Speaks; Letters and Reflections by: Tom Brokaw. More than a follow-up to "The Greatest Generation, these are letters that were written to Tom Brokaw, plus his own reflections on the stories and times of this amazing group of people.

Visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.

 

Also visit these related sites:

Boalsburg, PA, Birthplace of Memorial Day - The detailed story of Emma Hunter and Elizabeth Meyer.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address - Text of the speech that made history.

Operation Uplink - This group provides phone cards to military personnel and hospitalized veterans so that they can call home. Request a card or donate so that someone in a tough situation can stay in touch in family back home.

 

Classic Articles Portfolio - Policy & Contact Info - New Home Page

 

(c) 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com

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First Published: May 23, 1999 as part of A Positive Light