by Donnie Hayden
© 2014, all rights reserved
Today marks the official, 43rd year of observing Memorial Day, as a federal holiday beginning in 1971. It could be the 149th, 148th, 147th or 146th, depending on who you are, what you believe and where you are from. There are no less than a dozen cities, organizations and persons that it has been attributed to or claim it and that they, he or she was the first to come up with the name and or to celebrate the event for the first time. Indeed, a study or personal research undertaken, as to the histories and origins of Memorial Day, will reveal very much, interesting information. That last sentence was highly understated!
The stories range from it began in the south to no, it was the north from after the American Civil War. Some say no, it began earlier than that. Some say it started in Columbus, Georgia, but Columbus, Mississippi, highly disagrees with that, because they say they were first.
Francis Miles Finch (June 9, 1827 – July 31, 1907) was an American judge, poet, and academic associated with the early years of Cornell University. Finch wrote poetry throughout his life. Perhaps his best known poem, “The Blue and the Gray”, written in remembrance of the dead of the American Civil War, was inspired by a women’s memorial association in Columbus, Mississippi, who on April 25, 1866 tended the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers, treating the dead as equals despite the lingering rancor of the war.
The Blue and the Gray
By Francis Miles FinchBy the flow of the inland river, Whence the fleets of iron have fled, Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver, Asleep are the ranks of the dead: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Under the one, the Blue, Under the other, the Gray. These in the robings of glory, Those in the gloom of defeat, All with the battle-blood gory, In the dusk of eternity meet: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Under the laurel, the Blue, Under the willow, the Gray. From the silence of sorrowful hours The desolate mourners go, Lovingly laden with flowers Alike for the friend and the foe: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Under the roses, the Blue, Under the lilies, the Gray. So with an equal splendor, The morning sun-rays fall, With a touch impartially tender, On the blossoms blooming for all: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Broidered with gold, the Blue, Mellowed with gold, the Gray. So, when the summer calleth, On forest and field of grain, With an equal murmur falleth The cooling drip of the rain: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Wet with the rain, the Blue, Wet with the rain, the Gray. Sadly, but not with upbraiding, The generous deed was done, In the storm of the years that are fading No braver battle was won: Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Under the blossoms, the Blue, Under the garlands, the Gray. No more shall the war cry sever, Or the winding rivers be red; They banish our anger forever When they laurel the graves of our dead! Under the sod and the dew, Waiting the judgment-day; Love and tears for the Blue, Tears and love for the Gray.
Though this is a beautiful poem and memory, some believe Memorial Day was inspired by a southern woman and others say it was a northern military officer. Then there is a town in my state, Waterloo, NY that have honored the day since May 5th, 1866. To this, president Lyndon Johnson directed the federal government to recognize Waterloo, NY in 1971, as the birthplace of Memorial Day? You cannot say that the president, a southerner, was biased, being Waterloo, NY, is, in the north. But hold on, wait just a minute.
Some believe and would like the rest of us to believe that the ceremonies in April of 1865, might have begun what has come to be known as Memorial Day? Remember Fort Sumter? It was a fort off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, long used in defense of the city. For all practical reasons, Fort Sumter is where the American Civil War began. It seemed kind of fitting to include it in the memory, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, which unofficially ended the war between the states. Indeed, the same year, the flag of the United States would fly over Fort Sumter. All kinds of ceremonies were planned and implemented on the island, to honor the dead, the end of hostilities and the long reconciliatory process which was beginning, between the north and the south. This all happened on April 15, 1865. Later the same day and this same year, in Washington, D.C., president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.
But hold on again, wait just another minute. What about the story of prisoners of war that had died in captivity in Charleston, South Carolina and were honored on May 1, 1865? Was this the beginning of Memorial Day?
“During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, black residents of Charleston organized a May Day ceremony, covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building, an enclosure and an arch labeled, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the war dead. Involved were about 3,000 school children newly enrolled in freedmen’s schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, black ministers, and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field.”
Excerpts from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorial_Day
Professor David W. Blight of the Yale University Department of History, described the day during part of his lecture, ‘The Beginning of Memorial Day,’
“This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
However, Blight stated he “has no evidence” that this event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.
Of course, there remain many that want to dispute professor Blight’s claim, but if it were not for his discovery of this information, nearly lost and possibly suppressed, we would not even have it to consider. Did you know this former racetrack-turned open air field cemetery, still exists or efforts are being made to include this hallowed place as, an historic landmark? I did not until very recently.
On and on the stories and claims go, perhaps without ending and without number. But it seems the importance or meaning of the day, is lost on who said what first, made it first, and inspired it first.
At this point, what exactly do we know? We know that somewhere, sometime, someone merged Decoration Day with Memorial Day. It was merged because, after the change, people would still ‘decorate’ the graves of the fallen, but the word ‘memorial’ was more appropriate, for the reason they they did this. So it seems the connection was to honor the dead that fell during the American Civil War by decorating their graves. But we know that today, Memorial Day has expanded.
Many believe the name change from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” was first used in 1882. But it still was not a Federal Law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday, in order to create a convenient, three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30th date to the last Monday in May.
Law smaw, many states rejected this change until years later, when all 50 states were finally in compliance. Then there are those that still don’t like the date of the last Monday of the month of May. They would prefer the date being set on a more traditional date of May 30th, no matter what day of the week it may fall on. Congress has been repeatedly petitioned to make this change, even among its own members, but to no avail. Besides, if this were to happen, it would disrupt Memorial Day business, observed by most businesses because, this is the unofficial beginning of summer. Hmmm, what was really important, the day itself or another day off and part of another long weekend off and the opportunity for businesses to sell us their stuff from out of their stock and off their shelves?
Memorial Day expanded to include fallen soldiers, for all wars and conflicts since the American Civil War. Some did not like that because, living soldiers were not included. So Veterans Day was added for all veterans, living and deceased, for all wars. Veteran’s Day is on Tuesday, November 11 (this year 2014). But I bet more than many turn this into a four-day weekend, to do more stuff, get more stuff and to sell more stuff.
Memorial Day weekend has expanded to associate with the Labor Day weekend beginning, Monday September 1st (this year 2014). What is the association? Most people, businesses and organizations, with private or public swimming pools, open their pools around Memorial Day and close them down, after Labor Day.
Memorial Day weekend has expanded to associate with, the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 6oo races. These car racing events have for some time, been run on Memorial Day.
Somehow, Memorial Day was expanded to include all deceased members of families and friends and associates. People everywhere started decorating other graves besides those of soldiers. Then Memorial Day expanded to include picnics, gatherings of friends and families, businesses, other groups and of course, including barbecues!
Around the 16th century in England, the word potluck is said to have first been used. In the writings of Thomas Nashe, he defined this as, “food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.” In the 19th or 20th century, this potluck or sometimes called potlatch, was considered a communal or community meal, where people brought their own food. To the native Irish, this “luck of the pot,” had no particular menu, but was shared with many people and with many types of food, from whatever you had on hand because, quite often, this was the only pot people had to cook with. So many got together to use it and share the food together. This could have been neighbors, friends, families or all of them. This could have taken on the character of an extended family or a family reunion. Some people would often travel hundreds of miles to reconnect or with friends and families. They would gather on a certain day (like Memorial Day), decorate the graves of loved ones and renew their relationships or meet other new friends and family members. Sometimes, there could have been a religious service at the site and often this would follow with a “dinner on the ground.” Yes, at the cemetery, they would spread sheets or tablecloths on the grass or set up tables and “pass the pot,” sharing together what each brought to share. Now many believe this practice started way before the American Civil War so therefore, it predates any other origin of Memorial Day. But there are plenty of people around to dispute that claim or idea!
So what do we know for sure? We know that Memorial Day has expanded to include a lot of people and stuff. But what actually is Memorial Day? What is its purpose? I dunno, so I looked up the word “memorial,” in the dictionary.
The word memorial is a noun. It’s first definition, found in most dictionaries is, something similar to that which follows:
“something designed to preserve the memory of a person, event, etc., as a monument or a holiday.’
1350-1400; Middle English < Late Latin memoriāle, noun of neuter of Latin memoriālis for or containing memoranda. belonging to remembrance
Old French memorie, from Latin memoria, from memor mindful”
excerpts from: http://dictionary.reference.com/
In the least common denominator, memorial comes from the word memory and is connected to ‘being mindful.’ What should we be memorializing? For what purpose should we remember. keep in our memory and be mindful of?
In a previous post on this blog ‘ON: ANZAC DAY, I wrote about my recent experiences in Australia. You can can read it for the first time or again if you so choose, but it began for me, an evolution if you will, for what Memorial Day means to me now.
Here at The Gathering Place, me and the Mrs., which is pretty poor, improper or just bad English (but the 2 m’s may make it easier to recall) or properly, the Mrs. and I, are spending the day much like many others. We started by attending our first Memorial Day Parade, in our new home-based area of, Macedon, NY. As relatively new members of this community, we wanted to become more involved. We waited at the cemetery, as the parade approached.
We connected with new friends and reconnected with old friends. We walked into the cemetery and were part of the short service that was followed by free hotdogs, chips and drinks up at the Macedon Center.
But the service began with a moment of silence, honoring those soldiers that were buried in this field. Next, there was an oral reading of a poem I had not heard before. The poem was written by Archibald MacLeish, a poet who served in the U.S. Army in World War I:
The Young Dead Soldiers
by Archibald MacLeish
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock
They say: We were young. We have died.
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can
know what our lives gave.
They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours, they will mean what
you make them.
They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope
or for nothing we cannot say, it is you who must say this.
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us
This was followed by a short prayer in thanks for the freedom that we there and we everywhere, are charged with as overseers and preservers of this freedom. The service concluded with a 21 gun salute to those fallen.
Both my wife Susan and I have had members of our individual families and mutual friends that served in the military. We have friends and family that are presently, serving in the military. We are quite used to and understand, “extended families.” These friends and families and soldiers became, ours and my friends and families and soldiers!
My manner for quite sometime has been, to remove my hat and extend my right hand to any soldier I meet, to say thank you, for their service to our country. All of theses men and women either paid the ultimate sacrifice or were or are willing, to give their lives, for what they believed and believe is in defense of this nation. But what does that mean? What is this nation? How are we any different than any other person upon the face of the earth, living or dead? Isn’t it that we have placed into writing that “all…are equal,” and all have, “certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness?” Is this not the cry of every heart; of every man, woman and child – past, present and future for, the freedom to exercise these rights?
For Susan and I like many people, we will put something on the grill later and do some yard work, visit with and talk to friends and family. I will personally reflect upon what Memorial Day has now come to mean to me.
I will change my greeting to any known solidier I may meet. I will thank them for their part is keeping us all free to enjoy Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And I will extend this greeting to you, wherever you may be or whenever we may meet. For you too are, a defender, protector and an overseer of this freedom we all here, are here by rights to enjoy.
To truly honor our dead, we may continue to decorate their graves, get together, barbecue, open or go to a pool, and all the things we do, do on Memorial Day, but How SHALL WE HONOR THEM the BEST!
Let us go forth this Memorial Day, for all time, in the memory of and mindful of that each of us contribute or take part in the attempts to destroy freedom. If we cannot all, always agree, let us agree to disagree and part as friends and family, but let us each continue to preserve the path in peace, and decorate, and remember that we each are preservers of the freedom to enjoy, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness!
So to you, anyone that reads this or that I meet today or that I may meet one day, I say THANK YOU! Thank you for taking care of all our freedom to all our rights for, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness!!! Thank You!
In gratitude for your life,
Memorial Day, May 26th, 2014