MSG Eric R. Wilson is a senior instructor in the military science department. He discussed the history of Memorial Day and the controversy over its evolution into more of a holiday to create a three-day weekend than a serious observance in honor of those who died in war.
What is the original purpose of Memorial Day and why do we celebrate it today?
Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday to be celebrated the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because it was a time set aside to honor the nation’s Civil War dead by decorating their graves. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868, to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former sailors and soldiers. On May 5, 1868, Logan declared in General Order No. 11 that:
“The 30th 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 during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.
Who started it and how did the tradition of wearing red poppies originate?
In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
“We cherish too, the Poppy red That grows on fields where valor led, It seems to signal to the skies That blood of heroes never dies.”
She then 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 a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war-orphaned children and widowed women.
This tradition spread to other countries. 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 Michael for her role in founding the national poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
What is the controversy over the federal law designating the last day of May as Memorial Day, in effect guaranteeing a three-day weekend for working Americans?
Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
What’s been done to change that law?
On Jan. 19, 1999, a bill was introduced to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30 instead of “the last Monday in May”. On April 19, 1999, the bill was introduced to the House. The bills were referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform. To date, there have been no further developments on either bill.
To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed in December 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or to listen to Taps.
The Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day. We need to set aside one day out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all in service to their country.
How many U.S. service men and women have died in combat in America’s wars?
WAR BATTLE DEATHS
Revolutionary War – 4,435
War of 1812 – 2,260
Mexican War – 1,733
Civil War – 191,963
Spanish American War – 385
World War I – 53,402
World War II – 291,557
Korean Conflict – 33,741
Vietnam Conflict – 47,424
Persian Gulf War – 147
Afghanistan – 182
Iraq – 1,630
Total – 628,859