Memorial Day: Commemorate fallen soldiers, honor history and kick off summer

Soldiers holding flags, one saluting, white navy uniformed men in back, on grass conducting ceremony

A 2013 Memorial Day ceremony in California. Photo by Presidio of Monterey, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, MAY 30: Patriotic parades, solemn ceremonies and the unofficial start of summer mark Memorial Day in the United States, observed annually on the last Monday of May. In some communities, Americans young and old line the streets for parades. Many take time to listen to veterans’ stories and pay respect to fallen soldiers.

If you are reading this column and care about the lives of veterans and their families, we recommend that you learn more about a book, 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans, produced by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

Originally called Decoration Day, this national holiday began after the Civil War.

Who was “first”? Many claims have been made about which community first began honoring fallen soldiers in the Civil War era. Wikipedia summarizes several of them:

A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia, on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. Women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862, but not Union soldiers’ graves. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864. The first widely publicized observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865.

Library of Congress preserves this photo taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The Library of Congress preserves this photo, taken in 1865 while the African-American reconstruction of the cemetery in Charleston was in progress. The rows of markers are newly established individual Union graves.

The events in Charleston were documented by historian Stephen Blight. If you care to delve more deeply into that story of courageous former slaves who dared to hold the observance in Charleston in 1865, click on the historic photo or right here to jump back to some of our earlier coverage.

The first official Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery—May 30, 1868—drew a crowd of 5,000 people, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. By 1890, each state in the North had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states didn’t follow suit until after World War I. (Wikipedia has details.) As the nation and its memorial holiday evolved, Decoration Day was recognized as a day of remembrance for all soldiers who had sacrificed their lives for their country. Gradually, the holiday became known as Memorial Day, and in 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved the date from a fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May. That law took effect in 1971.

In cemeteries across the nation, small American flags are placed at each veteran’s grave for Memorial Day remembrances and, among some families, flowers are placed on fallen ancestors’ gravesites.

National Memorial Day Concert

Click on this image to visit the concert’s website.

Don’t Miss the May 29 Concert

Each year, a National Memorial Day Concert is held in Washington D.C.—this year, at 3 p.m. on Sunday May 29, carried live by PBS and NPR. The program will be co-hosted by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise. The concert is broadcast to U.S. troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network, reaching more than 1,000 outlets in more than 175 countries and on board U.S. Navy ships. This year’s concert lineup includes The Beach Boys, Katharine McPhee and the National Symphony Orchestra.

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