Memorial Day - Not Just a Day Off
Memorial Day is an important holiday that rarely seems to get its due. As a kid, while I did know the significance of Memorial Day, I could remember it being punctuated by sleeping in for a three-day weekend, lots of car sales, and barbecues. In actuality, Memorial Day is a tradition of honoring those bravely gave their lives fighting for their country; however, the Memorial Day we celebrate today is not the same Memorial Day that was celebrated in its conception.
The tradition of Memorial Day started after the Civil War, a conflict that caused more deaths than any other conflict in American History (history.com). One of the earliest observances of the tradition was by the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia. Once a year, the association would decorate the graves of fallen confederate soldiers. While the association neglected the Union graves at first, they decided to scatter some flowers onto the Union soldiers’ graves as well, for they were disturbed by the sight of the barren graves (U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs). This tradition would serve as a great influence for Memorial Day and its crystallization into an official holiday. Waterloo, New York would become the official founding town of the tradition of Memorial Day, for the community would hold an annual celebration in which stores would close and the entire community would decorate graves with flags and flowers in honor of the fallen soldiers. By the late 1860s, numerous communities across the nation held services for fallen soldiers; community members would pray and decorate the soldiers’ graves with flowers (history.com).
On May 5th, General John A. Logan called for a holiday in late May to honor those who died in the Civil War by decorating the graves of fallen soldiers (history.com). He would mark May 30th as Decoration Day. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield provided a speech at the Arlington National Cemetery, where 5,000 participants decorated 20,000 Union and Confederate graves. By 1890, every Northern State held Decoration Day as a national holiday, while Southern states continued to hold similar traditions on separate days until after World War I.
The sentiment of Decoration Day would begin to change in the wake of World War I, in which communities would begin to commemorate all soldiers who died in battle, including World War I (history.com). Memorial Day would be celebrated in May 30th until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, in which Memorial Day became an official federal holiday. The date changed to the last Monday of May, so federal employees could have a three-day weekend. This was not met without controversy. In fear of the meaning of Memorial Day turning into just another day off, Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye introduced legislation to make Memorial Day May 30th again. He would continue to do so until his death in 2012.
The sentiment and importance of Memorial Day is immense, and it also shows a wondrous side of humanity. Beyond idealogical conflict, we honor the sacrifices that our fellow man makes for the sake of justice. Even though the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia saw the Northerners as enemies, they still scattered flowers onto the graves of Union soldiers to honor their sacrifice for their cause. On the first Decoration Day, participants honored both Union and Confederate soldiers by decorating their graves. Memorial Day brings people together despite ideology and allows us to honor the fallen as not just with our nationality as common ground, but our humanity as common ground.