Photo courtesy National Archives, photo no. 330-CFD-DN-SC-85-12666
The Civil War. The Great War. The second World War. The Korean War. The Vietnam War. The war in Afghanistan. The number of wars in which our country has been heavily involved has been few. However, we have had our share of losses. Many have given all for our nation. Their sacrifice should be remembered, as Memorial Day endeavors to do.
Origins of Decoration Day
Memorial Day originally commemorated only Civil War heroes. While the war still raged, communities would decorate the gravesites of fallen soldiers. This tradition continued after the war ended. In some places—such as Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day—whole towns would shut down once a year to honor soldiers’ sacrifice by placing flowers and flags on their graves and praying over them.
General John A. Logan, the head of a veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic, recognized the importance of honoring the sacrifice of fallen warriors. He decreed that May 30 be a national Decoration Day in which Americans decorated the gravesites of fallen Civil War soldiers. The nation observed its first Decoration Day on May 30, 1868. A total of 5,000 people decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
After this first observance, communities continued to observe Decoration Day each year, but the actual date varied from community to community. It wasn’t until after World War I when the holiday came to honor all war fatalities instead of just the Civil War dead. It was also then that May 30 became the official date and Memorial Day the official name.
In 1968, however, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which made Memorial Day the last Monday in May. The intent to give federal employees a three-day weekend was controversial, though declaring Memorial Day a federal holiday was not.
Observations of Memorial Day
Since the very first Decoration Day, Arlington National Cemetery has played a major role in Memorial Day celebrations. Every year, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment—also called the Old Guard—performs the “Flags In” tradition placing over 235,000 flags in front of headstones and at the bottom of niche rows for Memorial Day weekend.
Also on Memorial Day, the president or vice president will perform a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the ceremony, the national anthem is played before the wreath is given to the president to lay on the Tomb. The bugler then plays taps and those gathered take a moment for silent prayer and reflection. The solemn ceremony concludes without a single word spoken.
Wearing poppies has become a Memorial Day tradition thanks to John McCrae’s World War I poem “In Flanders Fields.” The story goes that the sight of poppies growing on the battlefield inspired McCrae to give voice to those who were now buried beneath. Moina Michael read McCrae’s poem and wrote her own in response. “We Shall Keep the Faith” rallied the nation to not only “teach the lesson” of the soldiers of Flanders field but also to “the Torch and Poppy Red . . . wear in honor of our dead.”
Across the nation on Monday, flags will be at half-mast until noon. Americans from all walks of life will pause at 3 p.m. for a National Moment of Remembrance. And in Greenville, we will also honor those who have given all for our country. The annual Greenville County Memorial Day Ceremony will be at 10 a.m. at the Veterans Memorial Monument in Greenville County Square.