Our History & our Heritage by Bill Kiefer

When I write this column I always try to include at least one new fact that I learn in doing my research. I hope it will be a new fact to readers as well. When I stay local with the focus of the column that is not always easy. However, as this is Memorial Day Weekend, and we are all aware of it, I thought that it might be a good story to write about the origins and the history of the Holiday. Also I was curious to discover if it is unique to the United States, or if other countries have similar observations.

First, what it is. Many of us think it is just the first holiday of the Summer season. In reality the holiday was started as a way of honoring members of the armed forces who died defending the country. This occurred after the Civil War. Why? Well servicemen did die in earlier wars. Total military deaths, from all causes were 25,000 in the Revolution, 15,000 in the War of 1812, and 13,300 in the War with Mexico, the total is not much more than 50,000. Then came the War Between the States, Union deaths were 365,000, and Confederate deaths were 290,000.

As the war neared its end, thousands of northern soldiers held as prisoners in the South in prison camps were dying in agonizing conditions. Most students of the war are familiar with Andersonville and Libby Prison, however, just as bad were a series of camps near Charleston, SC. One particular camp located at a horse racing track was so bad that in the wars final months of the war over 250 prisoners died of disease or exposure and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. On May 1, 1865, approximately three weeks after the end of hostilities, approximately 1,000 people came to the site to consecrate a burial site for the “Martyrs of the Race Course.” They sang hymns, distributed flowers and gave readings. The event was unique in that the participants were almost entirely recently freed slaves and U.S. Colored Troops, including members of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, immortalized in the movie “Glory.”

Moving from this impromptu celebration to a more formal holiday was largely the work of John A Logan. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. He left Congress to serve, and that he did, rising to the rank of Major General, commanding an Army Corps, and also the Army of the Tennessee, and serving with distinction. Post war he resumed his political career, serving in the House and Senate and in 1884 was placed on the Republican ticket as the Vice-Presidential candidate to standard bearer James G. Blaine. His other occupation was National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), the Union army veterans’ organization. On March 3, 1868 he issued General Order 11, which called for a National Day of Remembrance for Civil War dead. Logan chose May 30 for the date of what came to be called Decoration Day because no civil war battle had been fought on that date. Logan stated that Americans should use the day to decorate the graves of the war dead whose bodies “now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard throughout the land.” Some say that he was influenced by the actions of April 1866, when the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus Georgia resolved to commemorate the confederate fallen once a year.

At present, nine states still commemorate some form of a Confederate Memorial Day, (Virginia and Georgia have ceased to recognize the day) but its date is not uniform, falling at such times as the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the date of death of Stonewall Jackson or other events. I did mention in an earlier column that the Hampshire County town of Romney was still celebrating the event as recently as 2017. This year the town’s on-line calendar shows Saturday June 5 as the celebration of “Hampshire County Decoration Day-Civil War.” However, a 2020 Hampshire Review article on the event describes it as a celebration of “Confederate Memorial Day.”

In any event May 30th was long known as Decoration Day. However, America continued to accumulate more war dead, and National Cemeteries established originally for Civil War dead at places like Gettysburg, and Arlington (the site of Robert E. Lee’s home) expanded in scope and number. In the next four major wars America’s dead were substantial in number: the War with Spain-2,450; World War I – 116,500 World War II – 405,400; Korean War – 36,516 and the Viet Nam War – 58,209.

The trauma of World War I led to a tradition of wearing poppies to commemorate our war dead. That started when Canadian soldier John McCrae lost his friend Lt. Alex Helmer at the second battle of Ypres in 1915.  He wrote a poem:

 “In Flanders fields, the poppies grow

      Between the crosses, row on row,

      That mark our place; and in the sky

      The larks, still bravely singing, fly

       Scarce heard among the guns below.”

An American teacher Moina Michael penned a response in 1920, entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” which included the lines: “We cherish, too, the poppy red, That grows on fields where valor lead.” Ms. Michael started a campaign to wear the poppy as a remembrance of those lost in battle. The American Legion took up her campaign and it became a national effort, with plastic poppies given for a donation to support veterans’ causes.

All allied countries involved in World War I adopted November 11 as a day of remembrance of their lost young men. America did too. Here it was called Armistice Day and acknowledged the day on which World War I ended. We already had Decoration Day and didn’t need another remembrance day.

In 1968 Congress adopted the National Holiday Act and fixed dates. Decoration Day now called Memorial Day was to be celebrated on the last Monday of May commencing in 1971, Armistice Day had  become Veteran’s Day by decree of President Eisenhower in 1954 and was to be celebrated on the second Monday in November, in 1975, President Ford changed the date back to November 11.

The key to keep in mind is that November 11th celebrates all veterans, and it is a day for us to thank them for their service. Memorial Day is a day to honor those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our Nation.