On November 19, 1863 President Lincoln delivered 272 words we call the “GettysburgAddress”. In his words, he made clear the need to recognize those who gave their last full measure of devotion. He was wrong when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”.
The world was listening.
President Lincoln set in motion a need to recognize our war dead, those who instilled in us an increased devotion.
The Civil War ended in 1865. Six-hundred thousand Americans gave their lives. Almost all families, Union and Confederate, were touched by the Civil War.
By the spring of 1866 cities were establishing days to honor the war dead. Waterloo, New York established the first Decoration Day on May 5, 1866. Residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
On May 5, 1868 a call went out by Gen. John A Logan to establish a national day of remembrance. The 30th of May was chosen as the day to be called Decoration Day. That date was chosen because it was a day in which no battles took place during the Civil War.
On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants met at Arlington National Cemetery and placed flowers on 20,000 Union and Confederate graves.
The South was slow to recognize a national day of remembrance. Each state adopted its own Decoration Day. Texas chose Jan. 19; Alabama and Georgia chose the fourth Monday in April; Mississippi chose the last Monday in April; North and South Carolinas chose May 10; Virginia chose May 30; Kentucky, Louisiana, and Tennessee chose June 3; and Arkansas chose the second Saturday in October.
After WW I (1918) Decoration Day became a day to honor all war dead, not just the Civil War. Plus, Southern states accepted a national day as May 30. The day’s name gradually became Memorial Day.
The next change took place in 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The change gave workers a three-day weekend. The change went into effect in 1971.
Americans recognize Memorial Day in many ways. Some have parades. Some have picnics. After the poem “Flanders Fields” by John McCrae in 1915, some pass out and wear red poppies.
Some see Memorial Day as the official beginning of summer, the day it is fashionable to wear white.
As President Lincoln and the Canadian poet John McCrae said, Memorial Day should be the day we become aware of the never-ending task of protecting our freedoms – the unfinished work so that our nation shall not perish from the earth.