Memorial Day is a legacy of the Civil War. Approximately 640,000 American soldiers, sailors and marines, North and South, died in that war. Out of a population of some 30,000,000, the death toll would be the equivalent of the US today losing six million dead in a war. It was a rare family that was untouched by this great national tragedy and the mourning for the lives cut short went on for decades.
Immediately after the war, events honoring the fallen began to be held. Among the first of these was on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina where a largely black crowd honored the Union dead. Such memorials quickly spread throughout the Country. Usually these gatherings involved decorating and cleaning the graves of soldiers. On May 5, 1868, General John “Blackjack” A. Logan, an Illinois Congressman and an able combat general during the war, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation that commemorations of the Union war dead and the decorating of their graves should occur on each May 30. “It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.”
The May 30 Decoration Day events became a fixture of life in the Northern states. The states of the old Confederacy had similar events but on different dates, varying from state to state. The term Memorial Day was first used in 1882, but the name Decoration Day remained for the holiday until after World War II. As Civil War veterans aged and passed from the scene, the day was broadened to remember all of America’s war dead. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 moved Memorial Day to the fourth Monday in May.
As Lincoln noted in the Gettysburg address, it is “altogether fitting and proper” that we honor our war dead, but in what way can we honor them? The monuments we raise to them are really for us, to remind us of the value of valor and sacrifice. They do not walk among us to view them. They cannot tell us what they think of the speeches praising them or the blog posts written about them. Their lives are done and they have been judged by God, as we all will be judged, and are now in Eternity. Other than the important task of praying for the repose of their souls, nothing that we say or do about them on Earth has any impact upon them. (more…)