I watched the Memorial Day Concert last night on KET. As always, I was very moved by the true stories of sacrifice, hardship and heartbreak suffered by military men and women and their families and friends.
It reminded me that we must not forget the brave American souls who faced the difficulties of war to keep America—and other nations—free and independent.
The history of Memorial Day is important to remember, also, because it was born out of the worst conflict ever to take place on American soil—the American Civil War.
Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day and was a time set aside to honor the 620,000 soldiers and sailors who died in America’s Civil War by decorating their graves.
May 30, 1868 was designated as the first official Decoration Day by proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers.
On May 5, 1868, Logan declared in General Orders Number 11:
The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
During that first celebration of Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery.
After his speech, 5,000 volunteers helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
By the late 1800s, many communities across the country celebrated Decoration Day.
After World War I, observances also began to honor those who had died in all wars in which Americans participated.
Those celebrations were held on May 30, continuing to observe the date specified in Logan’s 1868 orders.
In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and designated the last Monday in May as the official date of the celebration.
Today, Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave.
Also, it is customary for the president or vice-president to give a speech honoring the contributions of the dead and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually, approximately the same number who attended the May 30, 1868 ceremony.
In many places around the country organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, scout troops, and others, make sure that every person who served in the military has a small flag placed on their graves.
Although it’s probably no longer “politically correct,”several Southern states continue to set aside a special day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day:
- Mississippi: Last Monday in April
- Alabama: Fourth Monday in April
- Georgia: April 26
- North Carolina: May 10
- South Carolina: May 10
- Louisiana: June 3
- Tennessee (Confederate Decoration Day): June 3
- Texas (Confederate Heroes Day): January 19
- Virginia (Confederate Memorial Day): Last Monday in May
So as we go to the beach, or to the park, or to visit relatives in another city, or to cook out on the grill today, let’s remember why we have the freedom to do such activities. And let’s set aside a few minutes to remember those who served—some of whom died—so that we might live in a free country.
Thank you, U.S. Military members, wherever you are and whenever you served. You deserve our our thanks, our honor, and our respect.
You deserve far more then we can ever give back to you for the great gift you have given to us.
Danna C. Estridge, Guest Blogger
Following is a list of casualties from wars in which Americans fought since 1861:
Civil War: Approximately 620,000 Americans died. The Union lost almost 365,000 troops and the Confederacy about 260,000. More than half of these deaths were caused by disease.
World War I: 116,516 Americans died, more than half from disease.
World War II: 405,399 Americans died.
Korean War: 36,574 Americans died.
Vietnam Conflict: 58,220 Americans died. More than 47,000 Americans were killed in action and nearly 11,000 died of other causes.
Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (Gulf War/Saudi Arabia): 383 U.S. service members died.
Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq): 4,424 U.S. service members have died.
Operation New Dawn (Iraq and Afghanistan): 73 U.S. service members have died.
Operation Enduring Freedom (the Global War on Terrorism in Afghanistan, Philippines, Somalia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Sahara ): 2,349 U.S. service members have died.
Freedom’s Sentinel (successor to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, beginning in 2015): 22 U.S. service members have died as of May 27, 2016.
(Source for casualties: USA Today)