Memorial Day was yesterday. Other than having a day off, I wonder how many people bothered to reflect on the meaning of the day. I also wonder how many people know the history of Memorial Day and how it came to be. About this time every May I write my column about the origins, meaning, and significance of Memorial Day. Writing about Memorial Day once each year doesn’t seem excessive to me, considering the true significance of the day.
If you’re old enough to remember, Memorial Day used to be known as Decoration Day. It started out as a day of remembrance when people would take flowers, small flags, and wreaths to “decorate” the graves of Civil War soldiers, both north and south, who died during the war. Memorial Day, as it has come to be known, is a federal holiday on the last Monday in May that commemorates all the men and women who died while serving their country in the military – both prior to and since the Civil War.
The original celebration of Decoration Day took place on 30 May 1868. Interestingly enough, there are over twenty four cities and towns across the United States that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo, New York, was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966. Even more interesting is the selection of a town named for one of the most famous battles in history, the Battle of Waterloo which was fought on June 15, 1815 just south of the town of Waterloo, Belgium. It was a one-day battle. There are several cities and towns scattered across the United States and around the world named for the Battle of Waterloo – probably founded by veterans of the battle who immigrated to other countries in 1815 after the restoration of the French monarchy – an interesting sidebar story marginally related to a history of Memorial Day.
I found another interesting article about Memorial Day. It reads: “Other common traditions that are still practiced today include the raising the U.S. flag quickly to the top of flagpoles, then slowly lowering it to half-mast, and then raising it again to full height at noon. The lowering of the flag at half-mast is meant to honor the fallen soldiers who have died for their country over the years. While re-raising the flag is meant to symbolize the resolve of the living to carry on the fight for freedom so that the nation’s heroes will not have died in vain.”
The article continues, “Many will wear or put on a display of red poppies on this day as a symbol of fallen soldiers. This tradition grew out of the famous poem by Canadian John McCrae known as ‘In Flander’s Fields’, where Moina Michael conceived an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war.” That tradition of wearing a red poppy in one’s lapel or shirt collar was very common when I was a kid. Unfortunately, one seldom sees a poppy worn on Memorial Day these days. As I recall, disabled veterans made the poppies and members of the VFW and American Legion sold them for a modest price on the days leading up to Memorial Day. It was a vivid reminder of the meaning of – as it was called back then – Decoration Day.
One might wonder why the poppy was selected by John McCrae, author of “In Flanders Fields,” the famous poem alluded to above. According to “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” it was because on the war-torn battlefields of France, the red field poppy was one of the first plants to grow after the shooting stopped. Its seeds were ordinarily scattered by the wind and usually sat dormant in the ground, only germinating when the ground was disturbed—as it was by the brutal fighting during World War I. The landscape of France, as well as Belgium, was so devastated by the battles all along the Western Front that after the war was over people who had lived in the area couldn’t recognize even a single feature where farms, towns, and villages had been. The first reminders that life goes on were the red poppies that appeared on the battle-scared landscape in Flanders. They, therefore, were the inspiration for McCrae’s famous poem.
Another tradition associated with Memorial is the president or the vice president of the United States placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery which is inscribed with the following: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Members of the Army’s Third U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard” also places miniature American flags in front of more than 260,000 gravestones at the national cemetery. Here, incidentally, is another Napoleonic reference. Napoleon called the most elite veterans of his army his Old Guard. It was the most prestigious formation in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Ultimately, the point of Memorial Day is for us never to forget the sacrifices made, and which continue to be made, by Americans in the service of their country throughout our history. Since the American Revolution down to the on-going Global War on Terror more than 1.1 million Americans have lost their lives for their country. More than a quarter of them are buried in Arlington National Cemetery and other national cemeteries that are scattered across the nation and in other countries. Many were lost at sea and many lie in unmarked graves around the world. The ultimate point of Memorial Day is to remember them and the price that continues to be paid over the last 244 years.
That’s –30—for this week.