You’re Probably Not Celebrating Memorial Day Right
Every year, on the last Monday in May, Americans gather with family and friends in reverence for a great American tradition: fighting over the right way to grill chicken. Most Americans know that Memorial day is a meday to remember. Heck, it’s right in the name, like Easter is all about heading east, right?
In fairness, there is nothing wrong with enjoying a day of beer and grilling on Memorial Day, provided that beer is a domestic brand. It’s a tradition as old as America or at least since we stopped fighting with each other.
Alright, so we still fight with each other. Some would argue the Civil War never ended, it only morphed into politics. That may be true, but that’s another blog.
The end of the Civil War, spring of 1865, marked the start of a new nation, recommitted to the ideals of our forefathers. It also marked the end of the deadliest conflict in our nation’s existence.
We lost some untold 600,000 soldiers in the war, totaled from both sides. We had so many dead, we needed someplace to put them, so the United States partitioned land for use as national cemeteries.
There, we would bury our lost national heroes, plots of land we hoped we would fill slowly if ever. The roots of Memorial Day began around these plots of land, five years before the war ended.
Waterloo, New York
On May 30, 1868, the city of Waterloo celebrated an official day of remembrance. General John Logan, who was the leader of Civil War Vets, and national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, organized the event. He called it Decoration Day.
His decree, General Order No. 11 declared:
“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 truth, Waterloo had been celebrating since 1866, but back then they used the 5th of May, the same day many southern states celebrated. We’ll come back to them in a second.
The 30th had no other significance, other than what the people gave it. On that day, the people of Waterloo decorated the graves of soldiers with remembrances, but not as many flags as we see today. We didn’t always print out plastic flags en masse.
Not far from Waterloo, at Arlington national Cemetery, General James Garfield, the future president of the United States, made a speech to some 5,000 attendees.
There, participants decorated the graves of soldiers who’d served on both sides. The tradition continued the next year, building on Waterloo’s momentum.
Making It Official
The holiday wasn’t all peace and flowers. Many in the south were still bitter, and rightfully so. In their eyes, they’d lost the war.
They viewed the declared holiday as a Union celebration, one co-opted from the southern celebration of remembrance. For this reason, many southern states started celebrating Confederate Memorial Day on the fourth Monday of April.
Today, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama still consider the fourth Monday in April a holiday.
Most southern states, after World War I, dropped the separate holiday, joining the rest of the Union to celebrate Memorial Day. The day was now a day to remember all fallen soldiers, not only those from the Civil War.
In 1971, congress made it an official national holiday, moving the day to the fourth Monday of every May. Government offices were to close on that day, and employees to get the day off.
The grilling industry salivated almost immediately.
There is nothing more American than downing a few beers over a hot grill, arguing about the proper way to sear one’s steak.
This isn’t the heart of freedom, but it is one activity to which all Americans can relate, no matter what state they’re from. Just, while you flip those steaks, take a minute to bow your head in thanks to the men and women who gave their lives for your freedoms.