By Bill Moore
As we celebrate Memorial Day, it is important to reflect back on the true meaning of this national holiday. It is more than a day off from work. It is more than an extra day on the weekend to have family and friends over for the first cook-out of the season. It is more than a day to hike, bike, canoe, fish, golf or participate in other activities that awaken long-tired muscles.
Memorial Day is the time to honor the 1.35 million men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice protecting our nation from “all enemies foreign and domestic.”
Waterloo, New York, is generally considered the “birthplace of Memorial Day.” On May 5, 1866, the first known celebration was held. It became an annual, community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
Former Civil War Maj. Gen. John Logan helped to found, and later served as, the second National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was a veterans group comprised of former Union Army soldiers.
On May 5, 1868, as National Commander of the GAR, Logan issued General Order No. 11, officially declaring Decoration Day: “The 30th of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
On that first Decoration Day, Civil War Maj. Gen. and future President James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Five thousand participants at the event then decorated the graves of some 20,000 soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy.
New York was the first state to officially recognize Decoration Day, in 1873. By 1890, all of the Union states recognized Decoration Day. The Confederate states held their own commemorations until after World War I. The recognition has since honored those who died in all American wars, not just the Civil War.
Memorial Day was annually observed on May 30 until the National Holiday Act of 1971 created the three-day weekend for all but Independence Day and Christmas Day. Red poppies are traditionally worn on Memorial Day. A Canadian soldier by the name of John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” — at one time memorized by most school children. The opening stanza — “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place; and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below” — inspired Moina Michael in 1918 to write the poem “We Shall Keep the Faith.” She also vowed to wear a red poppy to honor those who fought and died in “the war to end all wars.” In September 1920, the newly formed American Legion adopted the red poppy as “the United States national emblem of remembrance.”
We remember, honor and thank all those who have died defending our country.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.