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