Decoration Day

The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend.
The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend.

The last Monday in May has been designated Memorial Day here in the United States.  Some have classified this day as the official start of the summer season, although with the weather we have been having here in Massachusetts it is hard to think of it that way, but this is not how this day began.

On May 5, 1868 Union General John A Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, published General Order No. 11 that designated May 30th as the day that decorations were to be placed on the graves of soldiers who lost their lives in what has become known as the US Civil War.  In laying out the reasons for this annual remembrance he uses these words:

Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.

May 30th was chosen as the date in part because the flowers would be in their full beauty in all places of the United States and also because it did not conflict with any other celebration in the United States.

General Logan also cautions us with these words about keeping their memory alive:

Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.

I have been engaged in project these last few weeks, to locate and identify the Civil War dead from Southbridge.  I am amazed at the number of graves that have fallen into disrepair.  This is no fault of the cities and towns where these graves lie, but to us as a nation, that we have forgotten these men that gave the ultimate sacrifice.  Some of the stones are so weather warn that it is almost impossible to read the names, but thankfully each year, flag are placed at the grave to honor their service.

The date was moved to its present, Last Monday in May, by act of Congress in 1971.  The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moved four holidays from their original date to Monday in order to create convenient three-day weekends.  Some organizations like the VFW and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, advocate returning the holiday back to its original date.

On Memorial Day, in large cities and small hamlets, all over the United States, ceremonies will be held to honor, not only those from the Civil War, but all veterans who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  Traditionally the Flag is raised “briskly” to the top of the pole and then lowered solemnly to the half-staff position where it will remain until noon when it is again raised back to the top of the pole.

The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

It was also traditional to hold a “dinner on the ground” a pot luck dinner where people would go the cemetery and enjoy a meal and gather as family.  Although we no longer do this in the cemetery families still gather on this day and enjoy a meal together.

Although I enjoy a parade as much as the next guy, I really do not think that today is the day for parades.  However with that said, a parade that is solemn and moves from monument to monument or from cemetery to cemetery where wreaths would be placed is very appropriate.  Speeches should be made to honor those who have died, not speeches by those trying to get elected to something.

My hope is that everyone will take time to visit a grave of a fallen soldier.  Perhaps it is one in your family or a grave of a soldier that has been neglected.  If you are in the cemetery, and notice a grave near your loved one, why not a few moments and place flowers at their grave as well and say thank you for their service.  It is the least we can do for those who have given so much.

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