A Look Back at #MemorialDay #history

Memorial Day graphic

When we have a three-day weekend, it’s easy to ignore the reason for the day off, but in the case of Memorial Day, we should remember why we celebrate.

The holiday started in the years immediately following the Civil War, the most destructive conflict in our country’s history. Hardly a family or community went unaffected by that terrible war. Two of my ancestors fought for the Union. One was wounded at Gettysburg, the other at the Battle of the Wilderness. The latter lived into his 80’s with a bullet lodged in one knee.

His rifle stayed in the family and was eventually passed down to me. I display it proudly in my family room.

1859 Sharps Rifle

Model 1859 Sharps Rifle carried by my ancestor throughout the Civil War

As early as 1866, people gathered flowers in spring to decorate the graves of the fallen. For decades the holiday was knows as Decoration Day, but after World War II, Memorial Day stuck. In 1866, President Johnson declared the town of Waterloo, New York to be the beginning of the Memorial Day holiday, but other cities make competing claims.

In the South, states set aside alternate dates to honor the Confederate dead. It wasn’t until after World War I that all states began celebrating on the same day, May 30, and people began honoring the dead of all American wars, not just the Civil War.

In 1968 Congress passed the law that created three-day weekends, and since then Memorial Day has been celebrated on the last Monday in May. This year the last Monday happens to be May 31st.

Ceremonies take place at veteran’s cemeteries across the nation, including the big event at Arlington National Cemetery, which I visited in April 2019. The trees were in bloom, and the cemetery was lovely and peaceful.

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery, April 2019

History.com has an interesting article about Memorial Day, including a video showing the ceremony in 1936 presided over by FDR and with prescient remarks from General John Pershing that foreshadowed WWII.

Have fun, but don’t forget why we celebrate.

Linda

Thinking of Our Veterans This #MemorialDay

Memorial Day graphic

I’m thinking about the men in my family who served our nation on this Memorial Day.

Two of my ancestors fought for the Union during the Civil War: one from Pennsylvania (my dad’s side of the family) and the other for West Virginia (my mom’s side of the family.) Both were wounded, one at Gettysburg, the other at the Battle of the Wilderness.

cannons

Memorial Day dates back to 1865, shortly after the end of the Civil War, when people in both North and South put decorations on the graves of those who fell in what is still the bloodiest war in American history. The holiday was called Decoration Day before the name was changed to Memorial Day.

My dad volunteered for service in World War II in August of 1942. He first tried to join the Navy as a Seabee, but was turned down for being underweight. He never was a large man, maybe 5’7″ tall. So he went across the hall to the Army Air Corps and enlisted. (He always said that in those days, the Army would take you if you could see light and hear thunder. He was quite the joker.) He worked on the ground crew of the bombers keeping the sights adjusted so the bombs would hit their target. He served first in North Africa and then in Italy.

My brother joined the Air Force right out of high school and served in the Pacific area as the Korean War was ending. I still have the doll he sent me from the Philippines.

In 2015 and again in 2016, I visited the Normandy landing beaches and the American cemetery in Colville. Learning about the D-Day landings and then seeing the rows of crosses really hits home the tremendous sacrifices made by our Allied soldiers that day. The experience is moving and humbling.

American cemetery

Grave markers at American cemetery, Colville, France

Wishing you all a joyful and meaningful Memorial Day.

Linda