May 25, 2004 > Why We Celebrate Memorial Day
Why We Celebrate Memorial Day
The origins of Memorial Day can be traced back to the Civil War. The first unofficial observance is said to be November 19th, 1863, the day of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The president dedicated a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the thousands of men, both living and dead, who fought in the battle of Gettysburg.
Two years later, in 1865, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves.
In the spring of 1866, he again mentioned this subject to General John B. Murray, Seneca County Clerk. General Murray embraced the idea and a committee was formed to plan a day devoted to honoring the dead. Townspeople adopted the idea wholeheartedly and wreaths, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran's grave. The village was decorated with flags at half-mast and draped with evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers.
On May 5, 1866, civic societies joined the procession to the three existing cemeteries and were led by veterans marching to martial music. At each cemetery there were impressive and lengthy services including speeches by General Murray and local clergymen. The ceremonies were repeated on May 5, 1867.
There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War. A hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping", by Nella L. Sweet, carried the dedication "To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead."
The first official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John A. Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day", as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo's first observance. That year Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30.
In 1915, Moina Michael, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Field", conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of the custom started by Michael. When she returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women.
This tradition spread to other countries and in 1921, the Franco-American Children's League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Moina Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement and issued a red 3-cent postage stamp displaying her likeness.
In 1965, a committee of community leaders started plans for the Centennial Celebration of Memorial Day. The committee consisted of VFW Commander James McCann, chairman, American Legion Commander Oliver J. McFall and Mayor Marion DeCicca, co-chairman, along with Village Trustees, M. Lewis Somerville, Roscoe Bartran, Richard Schreck, Tony DiPronio, and VFW Vice-Commander, Kenneth Matoon. Their goals were: "to obtain national recognition of the fact that Waterloo is the birthplace of Memorial Day through Congressional action" and "to plan and execute a proper celebration for such centennial observance."
In May of 1966, just in time for the country's Centennial, the United States Government recognized Waterloo as the "Birthplace of Memorial Day". While President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo as the starting point of Memorial Day, it is difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many derivations all culminating about the same time.
The Centennial Celebration that year brought dignitaries from government, military, veteran's organizations and descendants of the original founders of Memorial Day. A once luxurious home on Waterloo's Main Street, built in 1850, was purchased from the county and restored. Now the Memorial Day Museum, it houses artifacts of the first Memorial Day and the Civil War era. Memorial Day is commemorated each year in Waterloo with a parade, speeches, and solemn observances.
Since the late 50's, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d United States Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.
Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Also, it is customary for the president or vice-president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually.
Memorial Day is celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act, P.L. 90 - 363, in 1971 to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis' birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.