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Memorial Day Thoughts

On Monday, the nation will honor all servicemen and servicewomen who have died for their country. Please note that that day is not to honor all veterans or even those currently serving in our nation's armed forces. Not that we don't appreciate all veterans and those who are serving, but it is a special day devoted to the memory of those who have died serving.

It's sometimes good on such remembrance days to look back at how the day came to be so special. See if you know the answers to the following questions about Memorial Day.

  1. Who started Memorial Day?

The experts differ on this question. It depends primarily on where you live.

Southerners trace the roots of Memorial Day to a "Southern belle" from Virginia named Cassandra Oliver Moncure. She supposedly began the practice of honoring fallen Confederate soldiers during the War Between the States.

Northerners, however, tend to give the credit to John Logan, a Union general in the war. He organized a club of Northern veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic. It was as leader of this group that he is supposed to have begun the tradition of Memorial Day in 1868.

2. Does everyone celebrate Memorial Day?

Practically everyone in the United States recognizes Memorial Day now, but that was not always the case.

For a long time, the Southern states celebrated their own Confederate Memorial Day in honor of fallen Confederate soldiers. They considered Logan's day "Yankee Memorial Day."

Since the war, however, Northerners and Southerners alike have fought in numerous military conflicts side by side. Fighting as comrades rather than as enemies helped set aside differences between the blue and the gray. Memorial Day is now in honor of all of our nation's fallen soldiers.

3. How was the date chosen?

Logan arbitrarily declared May 30 to be the date for the first Memorial Day. For many years, everyone simply followed this precedent until it became a tradition. Congress, however, later changed the date to the last Monday in May. This permitted workers to have a long weekend during which to celebrate and travel.

In some Southern states, Memorial Day is also celebrated on April 26, in others on May 10, and in a few on June 3. The latter date is the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy.

4. Has it always been called Memorial Day?

No, it has also been given other names, such as "Decoration Day." This name came from the practice of "decorating," honoring fallen soldiers by placing flowers and flags on their graves.

5. Who is responsible for Memorial Day now?

The American Legion, a national club for veterans of the various wars of the United States, directs official Memorial Day ceremonies. With a membership of nearly two million, it is the largest veterans organization in the nation.

6. In what ways is Memorial Day celebrated?

Originally, the celebration was limited to decorating graves and having cemetery memorial services. Today, parades and concerts are held featuring veterans groups, scout troops, military bands, and a variety of local, state, and national dignitaries and organizations.

Another expectation is the prominent display of the flag. It is to be raised to its peak at first and then flown at half staff until noon. At noon, it is to be raised to its peak, saluted, and presented arms as a bugler plays "To the Colors" or as the crowd sings the National Anthem.

A very solemn tradition is the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. This is to honor all unidentified soldiers who died in the service of their country.

7. How many soldiers are being honored on Memorial Day?

Approximately 646,596 Americans have died in combat in the various wars in which our country has been involved. In the Revolution, 4,435 died. In the War of 1812 another 2,260. In the Mexican War, 1,733. More than 620,000 died in the War Between the States. In the Spanish-American War, 2,416. In World War I, 116,516. During World War II, 405,399 died. In the Korean War, 54,246. In the Vietnam War, approximately 58,220. Nearly 100 died in Operation Desert Storm. And more than 7,000 have died since 2001 during the on-going war on terror. These numbers do not reflect many others who died in various undeclared "brush-fire wars" in the Caribbean and Central America over the years. We certainly owe a lot to a lot of brave men and women. We are indeed "the home of the free because of the brave."

Now that you know more about Memorial Day, why not share that knowledge when you attend parades or other celebrations and remembrance events on that holiday. Don't just have your beach party or outdoor barbeque without giving a thought to those who sacrificed their all so you could enjoy that holiday.

(Adapted and updated from my article "Memorial Facts and Trivia" in the Emmaus (PA) Free Press, May 25, 1983)

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