Everyone looks forward to Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. Warmer weather and vacations are just around the corner.
On the heels of back-to-back wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the true meaning of Memorial Day is more obvious than ever. This is the day to remember servicemen and women who died while fighting for our country.
Memorial Day began as an observance for soldiers killed during the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight cites the first such event taking place in April of 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered in Charleston, S.C., at a horse track that had been converted into a federal prison. More than 250 Union soldiers had died there and were buried in a mass grave. The bodies were reinterred in individual graves. On May 1 of that year, thousands of Black residents, as well as missionaries, teachers and Union troops, gathered at Planters’ Race Course to honor the “Martyrs of the Race Course” with songs, scripture readings and roses.
The observance, which was originally called Decoration Day, was declared on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John A. Logan, who was the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The first official Decoration Day observance was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868. Flowers were placed on the soldiers’ graves. Southern states, however, saw the observance as one linked to the Union cause and refused to honor it. After World War I, the observance expanded to include all war casualties and was observed throughout the country.
Some critics claimed that by making the observance more inclusive, the original focus on, as Frederick Douglass said, “the moral clash between slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization,” had been lost.
As many as two dozen towns claim to have been the birthplace of Memorial Day. New York, however, was the first state to officially recognize it in 1873.
Poppies are the official symbol of remembrance. The National Poppy Movement was started in 1915 by Moina Michael, a professor and humanitarian from Good Hope, Ga. She was inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields.” The poem was written during World War I by Lt. Col. John McCrae, who had fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. He was inspired to write the poem after burying a friend and observing how red poppies quickly grew around the soldiers’ graves.
Michael became known as “The Poppy Lady” and wore them year-round to honor the soldiers. She began selling the flowers to raise money for the soldiers and their families. While visiting the United States, Madame Guerin of France became the French “Poppy Lady.” Inspired by Michael, Guerin took the idea back home to France with her and also began making and selling silk poppies.
The idea quickly caught on in other countries. In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars became the first organization to sell poppies made by disabled vets. Poppies were now officially the flower of choice to honor war dead all over the world.
In recognition of the swelling international movement, Michael started to raise money and awareness of war veterans. She was honored on Non. 9, 1948, by the U.S. Postal Service with a 3-cent stamp.
At a formal Memorial Day service, you may hear a single bugle play a tune called “Taps.” It is one of the most recognized tunes in history. The somber 24-notes are played at funerals and memorials for those who died in the armed services.
“Taps” was written by Daniel Adams Butterfield in July 1862 and was originally called “Extinguish Lights.” It was a lights-out bugle call used to signal the end of a soldier’s day. It was made the official bugle call after the Civil War.
In Flanders Fields
By Col. John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
As you enjoy the Memorial Day holiday, remember that it’s more than just a day off. It’s a time to honor and remember the men and women who fought and died in war.