Cover Story: The Origin of Memorial Day

General John A. Logan Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, (LC-B8172- 6403 DLC)

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with more than 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 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."

Although President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1966. officially declared Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had several separate beginnings.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The South refused to acknowledge the day, however, 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 commemorating Americans who died fighting in any war.

Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May -- Congress enacted a law in 1968 to ensure a three-day weekend for federal holidays -- although several southern states have an additional 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.

In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael 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 sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael. When she returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for the war- orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1948 the U. S. Post Office honored Moira 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 1950s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the 3d Infantry place 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.

And since 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 gravesites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye's Heights (the Luminaria Program).

But most Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day.

To help Americans re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the "National Moment of Remembrance" resolution was passed by Congress which asks that, at 3 p.m. local time, all Americans "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.’"

Additionally, on January 19, 1999, Senator Daniel Inouye, a veteran of the Second World War and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, introduced legislation which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May.” A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. Both bills were referred to committee.

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