Saturday, May 20, 2017

Memorial Day Reminiscences


On Memorial Day weekend when I was a child in Minnesota, my parents and I often traveled down to Montgomery, a small town about fifty miles southwest of our home in Minneapolis. My mother grew up on a farm outside of Montgomery and most of her family still lived in the area. Along with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we attended a memorial service at the Czech National Cemetery a couple miles from town. (Montgomery was and is home to descendants of Czech immigrants.) I remember my mom placing flowers on several graves.
Four Czech descendants: Grandpa Novotny, me with baby son & my mom Sylvia
The service always featured a color guard, probably soldiers from Fort Snelling in Minneapolis. There was a prayer and no doubt a speaker who talked about honoring our war dead. I don’t really remember that part, except that I was expected to stand quiet and be respectful.
As a teenager, I also visited the military cemetery at Fort Snelling with my mom and her cousin Lydia, whose husband was buried there. He died fighting in the Pacific during World War II. By this time, I realized my duty to honor those who fought and died for our country.
Fort Snelling National Cemetery; public domain photo
Decades later, after moving to Texas with my husband and children, I was shocked to learned the local school district did not recognize Memorial Day as a school holiday. Steamed up over this, I called the superintendent and demanded to know why. He informed me that Memorial Day was begun after the Civil War to honor Union dead, and that it wasn’t a Texas holiday. He also gave me a version of “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
Perhaps you can imagine my reaction. I told him the day was now meant to honor all the nation’s war dead and that I couldn’t believe his attitude. I also happened to know not all of Texas held to such a stance, since my kids had attended schools in a different district the year before, where Memorial Day was an official holiday. I am happy to report it became one the following year in the offending district. Score one for a mad mom!
However, I must thank that officious superintendent for wising me up about the history of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it used to be called. I did not know it originated after the Civil War. I have since researched the topic and would like to share a little of what I learned.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs:
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

“The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.

“The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.”
Robert E. Lee mansion pre-1861; public domain
Arlington House c. 1897-1924, from postcard; public domain
The article goes on to mention several places where earlier local observances were held to honor those who died in our nation’s bloodiest war. One occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, just one year after the war ended. A group of women gathered to place flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers killed in the battle at Shiloh. Noticing the bare graves of Union soldiers, the women also placed flowers on their graves.

“Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried,” the article states.

Memorial Day ceremonies were held on May 30 throughout the nation by the end of the 19th century. After World War I, the day became an occasion to honor those who gave their lives in all American wars. In 1971, Congress designated Memorial Day a national holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.

Many Southern states also have special days for honoring the Confederate dead. Most are held during the spring, but Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19. Surprisingly, I have never heard the day mentioned on newscasts here in Fort Worth.
Major General John A. Logan statue in Washington, D.C.: Creative Commons Attribution-share Alike 3.0
In 1868, General Logan ordered soldiers’ graves to be decorated “with the choicest flowers of springtime” and urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

About 5,000 people attended the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. A small American flag was placed on each grave — a tradition followed to this day in many cemeteries.
Arlington National Cemetery flags for Memorial Day
The National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president in December 2000. Under this law, “all Americans are encouraged to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”

Source: https://www.va.gov/opa/speceven/memday/history.asp

Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and romantic suspense novels, all spiced with paranormal elements. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West  Begins” - with her husband and a gaggle of very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged children.

Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/Y3aotC
Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 

12 comments:

  1. Too many holidays have fallen by the wayside or been renamed. Their meaning gets lost.

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I had no clue it started after the Civil War.

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  2. Glad to share, E. Often Memorial Day is regarded as just a long weekend for families to picnic (we've done that ourselves) and enjoy the beginning of summer. Nothing wrong with that as long as we remember those who died to ensure our freedoms.

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  3. My Uncle is buried in a cemetery that looked much like those with the white markers. I can remember stopping there every time we took my grandparents passed it. It was a chilling place and something I will ever forget. I found your post very educating, Lyn.

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  4. Paisley, chilling is a good word for it. When hubby and I visited Arlington National Cemetery years ago, it was so quiet even with all the visitors. Everyone spoke in hushed voices, out of respect for the dead I realize, but it was kind of spooky.

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  5. Great blog. My family is from Kentucky, so for decades, Memorial Day meant a pilgrimage to the hills to put flowers on graves, although we decorated everyone's gravestone, not just veterans who died in war.

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  6. Lyn, I didn't know Memorial Day was originated after the Civil War. I thought it was after WWI, so thank you for enlightening me. I am glad you straightened out that awful superintendent. What a terrible attitude he had (and probably still does). My dad died on Memorial Day weekend, so it has poignant significance for me.

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  7. Thank you, Keena. You make a good point. These days many people place flowers on the graves of relatives and friends, not just soldiers. In fact, that's what my mom did. Now she is buried among her relatives and friends in the same cemetery we visited on "Decoration Day" when I was a little girl.

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  8. In my earliest childhood memories back in Numidia, PA, I remember walking with Pop in the graveyard next to his parents' house and pointing out the graves with little American flags on them. There were graves of American Revolutionary soldiers in that cemetery being honored along with the recent soldiers.
    But that is the only time I recall honoring soldiers on Memorial Day. I have lived in North Carolina since I was 5 years old and, as far as my memory serves, Memorial Day was never celebrated by the public schools.
    We did, however, used to start every morning off with a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the Lord's Prayer. Well, THAT won't take place any more, either.
    This was such a wonderful article, Lyn. I want to celebrate the men and women who sacrificed to keep us free. They deserve to be held in high regard and remembered. Thank you for bringing up the subject of Memorial Day.

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    1. That must have been something, seeing the graves of Revolutionary War vets. I've never had that honor, but did walk the pats at Shiloh, among the graves of both Confederate and Union dead. A very moving experience!

      Thank you for stopping by. I'm glad you liked my post.

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  9. Thank you, Lyn, for a very timely and informative post. And kudos to you for taking a stance about the school honoring Memorial Day!

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    1. Thanks, Cheri. I don't like causing trouble, but sometimes I think we need to speak up.

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  10. A terrific combination of personal reflection and education about one of our national holidays. Thanks, Lyn!

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