Memorial Day

An excerpt  from my upcoming book – A Walk Among HeroesAn excerpt  from my upcoming book – A Walk Among Heroes

Who started Memorial Day? Is there a simple explanation? Was it the South to commemorate its Confederate War dead?

Was it the wives and daughters of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR)? Some say Abraham Lincoln started it with his speech at Gettysburg. But that’s just history for convenience. I wanted to use my time on this day to remember the life of one or two heroes buried at Arlington. But their stories would seem out of place without first understanding Memorial Day’s larger context—its history and meaning.

At least twenty-­five distinct places in the United States claim the origin of Memorial Day. As early as 1861, on June 3, in Warrenton, Virginia, the grave of John Quincy Marr, who had died just two days earlier, was decorated with flowers by family and friends.

Captain Marr was the first Confederate soldier to die in combat. After the Civil War, Southern women and their fami­ lies cared for the local cemeteries and placed small flowers on the soldiers’ graves. Remembering their fallen loved ones, they helped preserve the myth and culture of the lost cause of the Confederacy.

Eight days before that morning, in the North, Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth led a group of Union soldiers into Alexandria, Virginia, to retake the city. A large Confederate flag was flying atop the Marshall House, an inn in Alexandria, Virginia. On May 24, 1861, Ellsworth and a few of his men entered the building through an open door. They scrambled to the top and removed the flag. Upon descending a flight of stairs, Ellsworth was shot in the chest by the Marshall Houseinnkeeper. He died instantly. In return, one of the Union soldiers shot and killed the innkeeper. Ellsworth was the first Union casualty of the Civil War.

In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln’s 272 words would form the ethos of ournation and begin the healing we still hope for today.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR, issued a proclamation for a national day of remembrance called Decoration Day. This was a day to place flowers on the graves of soldiers and loved ones who had died in the war. The GAR was formed after the Civil War to aid northern veterans and advocate for pensions and voting rights for Black Americans. In addition, the GAR urged family members to do what they could to help keep their surviving war veterans sober. A central focus of the GAR was to create a national day of remem­brance for the more than 360,000 Union Army dead.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, May 5, 1868, is officially recognized as the first Memorial Day. How­ ever, the following decades saw numerous towns throughout the North and South laying claim to the honor. For example, Colum­ bus, Georgia, claimed it celebrated Memorial Day in 1866, as did Waterloo, New York.

How did we settle on the last Monday in May for Memorial Day? Was it to commemorate some famous battle or mark the turning point in the Civil War? No, the end of May was selected because that’s when flowers are in bloom throughout the North.

As Civil War veterans grew older and their comrades began to die off, they complained that the younger generation was using the holiday as a time for games, picnics, and revelry. Memorial Day took place at the beginning of summer, after all. In 1923, the GAR and the Indiana state legislature introduced a bill opposing the running of the Indianapolis 500 motor race on Memorial Day. But local officials and the American Legion wanted it to continue. The Indiana governor vetoed the measure, and the race went on. Begun in 1911, the Indy 500 celebrated its hundredthannual race in 2016. The race was suspended only twice, once during World War I and again during World War II.

In 1968 and not leaving well enough alone, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The act moved four federal holidays, including Memorial Day, to a Monday, thus creating three­day weekends. That, as with most things in history and everything in this story, was subject to controversy. The law took effect in 1971, but it took a few years for all fifty states to comply.

As late as 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars opposed holding Memorial Day on a three­dayweekend. They believed that “Chang­ ing the date merely to create three­day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”1 On every Memorial Day, flags across the country are raised

at sunrise and then lowered to half­staff, where they remain until noon. They are raised again to full staff at noon and stay until sunset. Before every Memorial Day, hundreds of soldiers from the 3rd US Infantry Regiment (also known as the Old Guard) place small flags at the over 270,000 gravestones of Arlington National Cemetery. Flags are placed at each headstone precisely one boot length from the base. Seven thousand more flags are placed at the foot of the Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. Throughout the United States, volunteers place thousands more flags at the gravesites of our honored dead. They do so at the 172 national cemeteries and many others scattered throughout our nation and overseas.

It’s not just Memorial Day’s placement at the beginning of summer or its creation of a three­day weekend that makes this holiday abstract. The sheer enormity of our war dead hides our connection. Most of us have no direct or firsthand relationship with the 1.35 million servicemembers who lost their lives defend­ing our country, beginning with the Revolutionary War through today. Over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War. As with most numbers or dates in this chapter, there is plenty of disagreement. An analysis in 2011 using census­based research places the Civil War service member dead at closer to 750,000. And the number of soldiers and sailors killed might have been as high as 850,000.

In World War II, we lost half a million service members. A walk along the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, contains the names of over 55,000 lives lost. As of January 4, 2024, America is numb after more than three years into a global pandemic. We’ve lost over1,163,040 to the novel coronavirus so far. Just like our war dead, the pandemic and the more than one million lost are abstract unless one of those who died was your relative, friend, or colleague.

In 1973, the US Selective Service’s authority to induct ended. The lottery, or draft, was suspended in 1976. I turned eighteen in 1974, and like every other eighteen­year­old male, I registered for the draft. My lucky number was 112. Had the war continued, I would’ve been on the shortlist. Many of my generation alter­ natively chose Canada over the Southeast Asia rice paddies of President Johnson and President Nixon’s War. Who knows what the right choices should’ve been? Most people I know who had the “right answer” were never faced with that decision. After all, the television and living room couch make patriots of us all. Now, almost fifty years since the draft ended, we seldom know anyone who served in the military, let alone someone who died while on active duty.

According to the casualty status from the US Department of Defense (DOD) as of August 21, 2023, Operation Iraqi Free­ dom cost us 4,418 service members and another 13 DOD civil­ ians. Operation Enduring Freedom, also known as the war in Afghanistan, all twenty­plus years of it, cost us 2,219 service mem­ bers, 131 who died in other locations, and 4 DOD civilians.2

Today, instead of the draft, we have a system I call “Let some­ one else’s kid go.” As fewer and fewer of our nation’s youth are needed to serve in uniform, there is an ever­widening divide

between the military and civilian communities. Unless you live close to a major military installation, it is quite possible not to know someone actively serving in uniform. Without this personal connection, the meaning of Memorial Day becomes an abstract concept. When the two communities do meet on holidays such as Memorial Day, fireworks and hot dogs add a nice touch.

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