Eric on The Road

Journeys into the offbeat, off the beaten path, overlooked and forgotten - by Eric Model

Friday, May 26, 2006

Remembering on Memorial Day - But What & Why Now ?

As heard on the radio, we've been contemplating Memorial Day.

We have read and heard much about how the meaning of Memorial Day has increasingly become forgotten. In 2002 the VFW stated in a Memorial Day address that "Changing the date (of Memorial Day in 1971 to a floating date)merely to create three day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt this has contributed to the public's general nonchalant observance of Memorial Day".

But a look back into history has revealed to us that there never really was a clear meaning for the day.

The origins of the day are in dispute and over the years just what we are remembering has changed too.

Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the early cities creating a memorial day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day honoring the Union dead and the several Confederate Memorial Days.

Professor David Blight, of the Yale University History Department, has suggested that the first memorial day was held by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston in 1865. The race track, which was used as a Confederate prison during the war, was the site of a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while captives. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.

The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was credited with being the birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter, and because it's likely that the friendship of General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who led the call for the day to be observed each year and helped spread the event nationwide, was a key factor in its growth.

General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in this land, and if he could he would have made it a holiday. That holiday was eventually Memorial Day. ( and

Logan had been the principal speaker in a citywide memorial observation on April 29, 1866, at a cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, an event that likely gave him the idea to make it a national holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization, Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance of this day.

Many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate Decoration Day due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army, which it was commemorating. Many Southern States did not recognize Memorial Day until after World War I, and even after continued to have a separate Confederate Memorial Day, with the date varying from state to state.

The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.

On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington's Birthday (which evolved into Presidents' Day), Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day; ironically most corporate businesses no longer close on Columbus or Veterans Day and an increasing number are staying open on Presidents Day as well. The law took effect in 1971 at the federal level. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply at the state level, all fifty states adopted the measure within a few years. Veterans Day was eventually changed back to its traditional date. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.

Unsurprisingly, given its origin in the American Civil War, Memorial Day is not a holiday outside the US. Because of its origins from World War I, countries of the Commonwealth, France, and Belgium, remember members of the military who died in war on or around Remembrance Day, November 11. The United States uses the same date as Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) and honors all veterans, living and dead. In Ireland, National Day of Commemoration commemorates all Irish men and women who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations.

These days, Memorial Day is mostly celebrated as "The Unofficial Start of Summer". Barbecues, store sales and family/neighbor visits are highlights.

But there are places to be found where the observances are still meaningful. For example, at Depoe Bay, Oregon this year marks the 61st annual "Fleet of Flowers" Following the on-shore ceremony at Depoe Bay Harbor, the fleet of flower laden boats passes under the spectator lined Highway 101 bridge. As they proceed through the channel into the ocean, they pass the Coast Guard boat and then form a circle within sight of shore. The floral tributes are then cast onto the water, as a Coast Guard helicopter lowers itself into the center of the circle and drops a wreath.
The first Fleet of Flowers in 1945 paid tribute to Depoe Bay fishermen Roy Bower and Jack Chamber, who in 1936 lost their lives in an effort to save others in trouble at sea.

Other meaningful Memorial Day events may be found at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and in the many town and village squares across the nation, such as in my home town of River Edge, NJ. They may be small, unsophisticated and mainly ritualistic. But at times, if you just take the time to look and listen, you can found impact, emotion and meaning - especially if you can still find the now rapidly disappearing veteran from World War II. They represent a time and place so important but whose voice is becoming increasingly softer and distant.

For more on the topic, consider these links:


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