While reminiscing last weekend, I started wondering about the history of the holiday we're about to celebrate. After a sizable amount of research into Memorial Day, I learned a lot more than I expected.
For instance, did you know that Memorial Day, which honors the men and women who died serving in the military of this country, was originally known as Decoration Day? The holiday grew out of America's deadliest conflict, the Civil War. According to the American Battlefield Trust, 620,000 Americans died on Civil War battlefields and from disease in the fighting that ended in the spring of 1865.
Alabama had more than its share of casualties. We had the third highest number of Confederate military deaths of the war — about 28,000. Only Virginia and North Carolina had more deaths, about 31,000 each.
As the result of so many fatalities, the country established the first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, towns and cities across the country started decorating the fallen soldiers' graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
While we know the reason for the tradition which became Memorial Day, the exact origin of the holiday isn't clear. We do know that in 1966, about 100 years after the start of decorating of graves, the government declared Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day. Perhaps that's because Waterloo celebrated the holiday first on May 5, 1866 with flowers and flags a year after the end of the fighting.
Two years later, Gen. John Logan, the leader of an organization for northern Civil War veterans, called for the 30th of May 1868 to be set aside as the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers.
On the first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield (formerly a Maj. Gen. in the Union army and later elected president) made the keynote speech at Arlington Cemetery before the 5,000 attendees spread flowers over the graves of some 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Gen. Garfield eloquently explained what Decoration Day is and why it should be commemorated.
After the U.S. had joined in the fighting in World War I, Decoration Day, with its roots in the Civil War, started to evolve to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. Gradually, the holiday became known as Memorial Day and was celebrated on May 30 as Gen. Logan suggested. The name and date of celebration stayed that way until 1968, when Congress passed what was known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day holiday for federal employees. The new day for celebrating officially went into effect in 1971.
My wife Paula and I recalled our earliest childhood memories of Memorial Day. Paula remembered her father bringing home red poppies to be worn in remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. The wearing of poppies is a tradition that began with a World War I poem, "In Flanders Field" written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a surgeon for an Allied artillery unit. Col. McCrae channeled the voice of fallen soldiers buried beneath the hardy poppies in a battlefield near the town of Waregem, Belgium.
I remember memorizing and reciting the poem in grade school. Here is the first verse:
"In Flanders field the poppies blow
Beneath 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."
Americans also celebrate the fallen military men and women with parades. The National Memorial Day Parade is held in Washington, D.C., attracting nearly a quarter of a million spectators, including dozens of veterans from World War II.
New York City celebrates Fleet Week honoring the sea services — Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. The highlight of the week-long celebration of Memorial Day includes a wreath-laying, the unfurling of a 100-foot American flag, and a military flyover.
In Auburn, the 21st annual Mayor's Memorial Day Breakfast will be held at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center on Monday from 8 to 11 a.m.
In Opelika, you're invited to attend the city's Memorial Day Services on Monday at 10 a.m. at City Hall. This year, U.S. Army veteran Major Douglas Barrett will share what the day means to him. There will be a reception at Museum of East Alabama following the services.
This is a wonderful opportunity to explain to your children and grandchildren the meaning of Memorial Day. I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about patriotism and sacrifice with others who feel as you do.