Recollections on the origin of Memorial Day

When I was a boy in the 1950s almost everyone observed Memorial Day or Decoration Day, as it was sometimes called. Parades were held in every town, and flowers and small flags adorned the graves of America’s war dead.

All of America paused to honor those who had not long before sacrificed their lives for freedom on the battlefields of Korea and two World Wars. Even Civil War veterans were not forgotten, as their graves were decorated by their aged comrades and descendants.

Most would agree that our Viet Nam vets never received the honor due them, although in recent years there has been a resurgence in recognizing their sacrifice, brought about in part by their own leadership in recognizing the young men and women who are serving, suffering, and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan – two wars that should be brought to a swift end.

As the upcoming Memorial Holiday approaches, I thought it would be good to pause and reflect on its origin. During the Month of March 1868, just three years after the end of Civil War, Mary Logan, wife of General John Logan, had occasion to visit Petersburg, Virginia, which is considered by many to be the place where Memorial Day was first celebrated.

Mrs. Logan later recounted her memory of that visit in an article published in the Los Angeles Daily Times on May 30, 1903, titled “Memorial Day: A Noted Woman’s Story of its Origin and Growth.” Here is an excerpt from that article.

“It is especially pleasant to know that the ideal of Memorial Day was unwittingly suggested by the devotion of the people of the South to their heroes. In the early spring of 1868 I was one of a party to make a pilgrimage to the battlefields of Virginia. Gen. Logan had long been anxious to make a personal inspection of this section of the country, over which the great conflict raged, in order to enlarge his knowledge of the entire course of the war. Unfortunately, however, circumstances prevented him accompanying me and he did not see with his own eyes what really prompted the first Decoration Day. It is my pleasure to revert to it and to pay a just tribute to the gentle people whose acts gave me the inspiration that resulted in the Decoration Day of today.

“But it is not of this that I would speak, but of the incident that gave me the inspiration that resulted in Decoration Day. We were in Petersburg, Virginia, and had taken advantage of the fact to inspect the oldest church there, the bricks of which had been brought from England. There was an old English air all about the venerable structure, and we passed to the building through a churchyard. The weather was balmy and spring-like, and as we passed through the rows of graves I noticed that many of them had been strewn with beautiful blossoms and decorated with small flags of the dead Confederacy. The sentimental idea so enwrapped me that I inspected them more closely and discovered that they were everyone the graves of soldiers who had died for the Southern cause. The actions seemed to me to be a beautiful tribute to the soldier martyrs and grew upon me while I was returning to Washington. Gen. Logan was at that time the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, with his headquarters in Washington, and as soon as he met me at the station I told him of the graves of the Southern soldiers in the cemetery at Petersburg. He listened with great interest and then said: ‘What a splendid thought! We will have it done all over the country, and the Grand Army shall do it! I will issue the order at once for a national Memorial Day for the decoration of the graves of all those noble fellows who died for their country.’ He immediately entered into a conference with his several aides with a view of selecting a date that should be kept from year to year. He realized that it must be a time when the whole country was blooming with flowers, and May 30th was finally selected as the best season for the annual observance of the day.”

Mrs. Logan then went on to quote essential parts of Grand Army of the Republic General Order No. 11, issued on May 5, 1868, which designated May 30, “…for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of the comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Cemeteries throughout our communities, and in foreign lands, are the resting place of brave men and women who have served our nation in uniform, including many who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. This Memorial Day let us remember them all with grateful hearts, from those who died in the Revolutionary War to the brave young men and women who are serving today, and especially those who have most recently made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Say a prayer for them and for their families.

George Brown is the executive director of Clermont Senior Services.