The tradition of honoring our war dead probably pre-dates the Civil War, and we know that families cleared winter debris from family graveyards long before governments became involved in creating a special day for doing so. Still, most accounts give credit for the first “Memorial Day” to the African-American events carried out in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865. There, ceremonies honored 257 Union soldiers who died while being held as prisoners of war at the Hampton Park Race Course. Freedmen, Union troops, black ministers and northern missionaries gathered to clean up their unmarked graves, to remember those who had lost their lives during the Civil War, and to offer thanks for the end of slavery in the United States.
In the North, the first Decoration Day came at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, at the direction of General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He announced that the day should be "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." Gradually the custom spread across both the North and the South. At the same time, the two names — Memorial Day and Decoration Day — gradually merged, until a federal law passed in 1967 officially designated the term Memorial Day.
Almost immediately thereafter, Congress began to work on a proposal that would change the fixed dates of four holidays to designated Mondays, so as to create four three-day holiday weekends for the convenience and pleasure of American voters. The four included George Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. The change became effective in 1971.
By 1975 protests forced the date of Veteran’s Day to be restored to November 11th, but efforts to do the same for Memorial Day were less successful. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii began offering resolutions to restore the May 30 date in 1987 and continued to do so every year until his death in 2012. The VFW picked up the effort in 2002, declaring that the 3-day weekend trivialized the meaning of the day. So far all such efforts have failed.
Today, the same protest is echoing across Facebook. If you are among those who cringe at “Memorial Day sales,” picnic recipes, ads for beach get-aways, and well-meaning but oblivious folks who wish you a “Happy Memorial Day,” you already understand. This “holiday” was never meant to be National Barbecue Day. It’s not even a day to say “Thank You” to living veterans who gave of their service. They’ll get their day on November 11th. Today, May 30, we are meant to remember and honor those who have given their very lives in the service of their country, both those who died on a far-off battlefield and those who later died of their war-related injuries.
As one whose husband died of combat-related injuries, my heart aches on this day. I’m not having a nice holiday. I’m not happy. I won’t be cooking out. But I will remember.