Decoration Day

Memorial Day is less than two weeks away. Memorial Day weekend, particularly in the East, signals the official beginning of summer. Like many of our national holidays it has become dream fodder for marketing departments everywhere. Businesses boast special saving on everything from barbeque grills to deodorant to automobiles at special Memorial Day “Blow-Out” Savings!

Better than thirty years ago now, Congress decided to rearrange our holidays to create three-day weekends; more time for sales bargains and fun. Originally Memorial Day was celebrated on May 30, but now it’s the last Monday of May. Labeled as the beginning of summer, folks will be loading up their SUV’s to overflowing and heading for the country, sojourns to lakes and rivers and parks for cookouts and picnics, festivities of all kinds. Perhaps you’ll simply throw a steak on the backyard grill. Celebration is the order of the day and why not, the weather’s great and the great out-of-doors is definitely rejuvenating for the soul.

When I was a kid growing up on the Illinois prairie, Memorial Day was celebrated on its true date, no matter which day of the week it happened to fall upon. Some of you may actually recall what it was like to pause in the middle of a workweek to celebrate a holiday. It had a different name too, Decoration Day. Officially it had become Memorial Day, but everybody called it Decoration Day, some still do. The Indianapolis 500 became a 20th Century Memorial Day tradition. I still love to hear the engines roar to life at the opening of that race.

I remember lining up down by the grade school with dozens of other kids my age to march in the Decoration Day Parade. There were flags and flag bearers, bands, horses, patriotic floats and dignitaries in convertibles. Most of all there were men in uniform, proud veterans. Each kid was given an American flag and off we’d march out to the town cemetery. There would be ceremonial speeches and prayers and then the soldiers would salute their fallen brothers by firing their rifles. That part thrilled me because the rifles were loud and boys like that sort of thing. But what happened next remains most vivid. Somewhere out beyond the tree line that circled the cemetery, far from sight in the middle of a newly planted cornfield, an invisible lone bugler would play taps. The thought of those disembodied notes adrift on spring air brings chills even now.

Actions of women initiated Decoration Day at the time of the Civil War. Colonel James Hunter was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The following spring his daughter Emma Hunter of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania placed flowers on his grave in Gettysburg Cemetery.

On April 26, 1866 four southern women in Columbus, Mississippi went out to Friendship Cemetery, the site of the Battle of Shiloh. They scattered flowers over the graves of not only Confederate soldiers but Union soldiers as well. The notion that Southern women would mark the graves of Union soldiers with flowers was met with surprise. The news of this incident spread north, reaching the New York Tribune. The newspaper commended the ladies for their selfless, respectful act.

Around the same time Henry C. Welles, a Waterloo, New York druggist convinced townspeople to honor Civil War dead by decorating their graves. They made wreaths, crosses and bouquets for the patriot’s graves, flags were flown at half-mast and a processional, led by veterans, marched to the town's cemeteries.

On May 5, 1868 General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), officially proclaimed the 30th day of May, as the first Decoration Day. In General Order Number 11, he wrote, “May 30 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.” The South refused to acknowledge Decoration Day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I. Divisiveness and discord die hard.

This year enjoy the cookouts and other outdoor festivities and events you have planned. It is indeed a good time for celebration. But take a moment or two wherever you are and consider the true meaning of this holiday. Take a stroll into any cemetery; take along some flowers. You’ll find those GAR markers on the graves of Civil War veterans, before long you eye will discover markers and flags designating those from other wars who have given the supreme sacrifice. A whispered thank you will go a long way toward restoring and preserving the dignity and respect this holiday truly deserves.

In General Order Number 11 it also states quite poetically, “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. Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime.”

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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