One of my most vivid childhood memories involves my family’s annual Decoration Day trip to St. Joseph Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois. Along with my widowed aunts and their children, we would attend services memorializing those who died in battle and whose final resting places could be found in a special section of the cemetery. Afterwards, the adults would attend to the family plot, cleaning away the debris of winter and planting flowers while we youngsters roamed among the graves. The day always ended with a visit to what I knew only as the "soldiers’ section". There stood row on row of white crosses, names, ranks, and dates of birth and death etched onto their stone surfaces. The grass seemed always cut to perfection here, and small American flags waved gently in the breeze next to each cross. To this day I can picture in my mind those endless lines of crosses and the solemn look on my parents’ faces as they gazed out over what was truly hallowed ground.
It wasn’t until 1967 that Decoration Day in the United States officially became known as Memorial Day. This latter name originated in 1882, but did not come into common usage until after World War II. The former name dates back to Civil War times when citizens on both sides of the conflict buried and maintained the gravesites of soldiers killed in local battles.
Following the war, commemorative services for the dead were held in numerous towns and cities both in the North and the South. Major General John Alexander Logan (pictured at the left), an Illinois veteran of the Union army, spoke at one such service on April 29, 1866 in Carbondale, Illinois. The General was profoundly impressed by the experience. Two years later, in his capacity as Commander of a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan issued General Orders No.11, a proclamation urging a nationwide observation of "Decoration Day" by veterans.
"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. 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.
"Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."
Logan chose May 30th as the date for Decoration Day because it did not coincide with the anniversary of any Civil War battle. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill moving Decoration Day – now called Memorial Day – to the last Monday in May. Despite initial resistance to the law, the new date was eventually accepted by all the states and took effect at the federal level in 1971.
In the years since General Logan first proposed the observance of Decoration/Memorial Day, we have seen two great conflicts shake the world and numerous other ones claim the lives of young Americans. And while we live in relative peace at home, you need only look on the faces of Pearl Harbor survivor Houston James and Marine Staff Sgt. Mark Graunke to know that War, the Great Decider of life and death, still affects us as a people.
Which is why, when I recall my childhood and those long lines of white crosses, I think of General John Logan’s admonition to his comrades,
"If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us."
Memorial Day, 2009. A day to look back on our past. A day to honor fallen heroes.