Because many towns and cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, the exact origin of this holiday remains vague. Originally named Decoration Day, we do know that Memorial Day has Southern roots. It began when groups of Southern women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers during and after the Civil War. “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping,” a hymn published in 1867 by Nella L. Sweet, was sung during the commemorative ceremonies. However, Decoration Day was neither recognized nor treated as a special day.
In the wake of the Civil War, a great rift continued to exist between the North and South, as did the need to honor the fallen soldiers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Reconciliation between the two sides was critical to our national healing process.
General John A. Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, began that process. On May 5, 1868 Logan announced the establishment of Memorial Day. On May 30th of that year, the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated, for the first time, at Arlington Cemetery.
The State of New York officially recognized the holiday in 1873; by 1890, the other Northern States had embraced it. The South, however, continued to observe a separate day. After World War I, Memorial Day assumed a broader meaning. Proclaimed a national holiday, its intent was to honor the fallen soldiers of all wars.
In 1915, Moina Michael, who was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Field,” penned her own paean to our troops:
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.
Moina sold poppy flowers to benefit our servicemen in need. Her devotion, coupled with her poem, gave birth to the practice of wearing poppies in our lapels in observance of Memorial Day.
A French woman named Madam Guerin then copied this practice as a means of generating funds for the Franco-American Children’s League, which supported orphans in France and Belgium. A year later, when the League disbanded, Madam Guerin reached out to the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) for assistance. Thus, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to sell Buddy Poppies made by disabled veterans nationwide. In 1948, the United States Postal Service honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy Movement with a three-cent stamp bearing her likeness.
Over the years, America has drifted away from traditional customs, and Memorial Day is one such casualty. Ironically, it was our government that initiated the loss of Memorial Day as a way of honoring the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice for our country.
In 1971, Congress enacted P.L. 90-363, which stated that Memorial Day would henceforth be celebrated on the last Monday in May, in order to ensure a three-day holiday weekend. It also guaranteed that businesses would rake in extra cash by hosting Memorial Day blowout sales. The VFW and other veteran groups responded to P.L. 90-363 by telling our legislators that changing the date simply to accommodate a three-day holiday weekend would undermine the very meaning of the day. Congress’ act has contributed directly to the public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced a bill to the Senate (S-189) in order to return Memorial Day to its original date of May 30th. Exactly three months later, Representative Gibbons introduced virtually the same bill, H.R. 1474, to the House. Both bills were referred to the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Reform. To date, the bills are still languishing. I guess they’re not good for business.
In December 2000, in an effort to restore public awareness, President Clinton issued a directive to have a voluntary moment of silence at 3 PM on Memorial Day.
Despite these efforts, Congress sought to hijack yet another day of observance when it attempted to convert Veterans Day to a three-day holiday weekend. Met with stiff opposition by veterans’ groups, the attempt did not succeed.
American traditions are constantly challenged for the sake of the Almighty Buck. If our days of observance vanish completely, it will be because our lawmakers failed to understand that Sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless.