At least 620,000 died from combat, accident, starvation, and disease. Some deaths were from lesser known battles. Some were from more well-known ones such as Gettysburg and Antietam. Some were from the brutal POW camps of Elmira, N.Y., and Andersonville, Ga. Thousands were buried where they fell or near field hospitals. Although many were later exhumed and reburied in national and Confederate cemeteries, because of the sheer number and varied circumstances, thousands remain in unknown battlefield graves. Of course, these are the men from America's Civil War from 1861 to 1865 and the origins of Memorial Day, our nation's federal holiday which will be celebrated tomorrow.
Most thought the war would be short-lived. As weeks became months and months dragged on, more and more families grieved the loss of their loved ones. It is believed that organized groups of women of the south were decorating these graves with flowers even before the end of the Civil War, which is the birth of "Decoration Day," later known as Memorial Day. These women were remembering and paying tribute to their family members lost in the war. Simply, that is what Memorial Day is all about, a day to pay tribute to those who have died in service of our country.
A short time after the Civil War in May 1868, the practice of decorating graves was nationally recognized when General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic officially ordered the decoration of graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. In his order, he stated that their graves should be guarded with sacred vigilance.
"Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic. Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains. Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan."
As time passed, individual towns and states held Decoration Day events with several later claims of who was first. After World War I, the name was changed to Memorial Day to honor our war dead from any war. In 1966, according to usmemorialday.org, President Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, at least in the northern states. True or not, the day was generally celebrated on May 30 when stores were closed, parades were common, speeches were given, and cemeteries were visited. In 1971, Congress changed Memorial Day to the last Monday in May so that people could have a three-day weekend, which may have been the beginning point when Americans failed to remember or recognize the significance of the day. Sadly, for many, it has become a day of other pursuits with no thought about the fallen, those who paid the price for freedom. The VFW stated in an address that, "Changing the date has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."
Moves to restore the true meaning of Memorial Day include a bill introduced several years ago to move the day back to its original date. Reintroduced several times, according to "Help Restore the Traditional Day of Observance," the bill states in part, "We have lost sight of the significance of this day. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer. This bill would restore Memorial Day to May 30 and help restore the recognition our veterans deserve for the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our nation." Another recent step to remind Americans of the true meaning of the day is the "National Moment of Remembrance." A resolution passed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, it asks Americans to voluntarily pause in silence at 3 p.m., local time, and remember that, "Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values."
Some words to help us remember come from an 1867 southern hymn by Nella L. Sweet called "Kneel Where Our Loved Ones are Sleeping," and dedicated to decorating the graves of the dead.
Kneel where our loved ones are sleeping. Dear ones days gone by, here we bow in holy reverence, our bosoms heave a heartfelt sigh. They fell like brave men, true as steel, and pour'd their blood like rain. We feel we owe them all we have, and can but kneel and weep again.
Taps, which became an official bugle call after the Civil War, also has popular words to stir the soul.
"Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh. Go to sleep, peaceful sleep. May the soldier or sailor, God keep, on the land or the deep, safe in sleep."
Make it a good week with a good beginning tomorrow by participating in one of several local Memorial Day events. One to be enjoyed is the ceremony beginning at 8:45 a.m. at the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, followed by a program at Memorial Park, after which the parade commences from Lake Shore Drive to Central Avenue.
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