Long before sales and sports and the three-day weekend, Memorial Day was a day of mourning. Turning grim Civil War battle experiences into something lasting and inspiring, Gen. John Alexander Logan set aside May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
Residents of Waterloo, New York, and Columbus, Mississippi, claim the holiday was first observed in their towns in 1866, but it took Gen. Logan’s big heart and clout as commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, which he helped found, to issue a general order designating the first Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day.
Because the South lost the war and because Gen. Logan helped Ulysses S. Grant capture the prized river port of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863, nine Southern states celebrated their own Confederate memorial days — on April 26, May 10 or June 3 — well into the 20th century.
Each Memorial Day has been a time for words of reflection and gratitude, to assess America’s place in the world and the prospects for lasting peace. Consider these words from earlier holidays, culled from newspaper files. They date from the first Memorial Day in 1868 to the early days of World War II:
“Let our mottoes be truth, justice and equality, and the heroes who died for us will never have been disgraced.” — Hon. John Peters, Bangor, May 30, 1868.
“We have never been a bully among nations, although we are strong enough to have played that role with good chance of success.” — The Rev. Herbert E. Ross, Bangor, May 30, 1898.
“Today we are one people, forgotten are all racial bitterness, partisan bigotry and sectional differences.” — The Rev. H.E. Dunnack, Orrington, May 30, 1917.
“To [democracy’s] defenders, who are among its finest expressions, we must make no promises which we cannot or will not perform.” — Bangor Daily News editorial, May 30, 1941.
Since 1971, the nation and its territories have observed the last Monday of every May as Memorial Day. There still are parades ending at cemeteries with patriotic orations, the playing of taps and 21-gun salutes. Wreaths are tossed into the ocean. Families turn out to decorate the graves of loved ones.
Yet there can be little doubt that this calendar change has turned, over the past four decades, what began as a day of singular solemnity into a day known to an increasing number of Americans merely as the end of a long weekend and the beginning of summer.
There has been a movement, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars among the leaders, to return Memorial Day to its May 30 date and, it is hoped, to its original reverent intent. This is a noble cause but seems unlikely to succeed. Legislation to restore the traditional day of observance was introduced in Congress in years past but hardly budged. It seems the festivities of a three-day weekend and the solemnity of honoring “comrades who died in defense of their country,” as Gen. Logan put it, simply will have to coexist.
Today we honor the soldiers and sailors who have died. We honor their willingness to risk their own lives in pursuit of the ideals of the nation. This Memorial Day, Americans should have no trouble finding time, or reason, to honor their comrades.