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Recapping History Of U.S. Memorial Day Celebration

Sun Advocate reporter

In 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, General John Logan, commander of an early veterans organization called The Grand Army of the Republic, issued general order number 11.

The order set aside May 30 as a day of remembrance for the soldiers who had fallen during the Civil War.

On the first Memorial Day, flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

But it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where the idea of decorating the graves of soldiers first started, according to United States historians.

More than two dozen towns across the U.S. claim the honor of starting the tradition.

In May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson decreed Waterloo, N.Y., to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

However, the historical evidence supporting the declaration is not strong.

Since the Civil War had such a devastating effect on the whole nation, it is likely that the tradition was started in several different places.

Several southern women's organizations were decorating the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers before the Civil War ended.

The original memorial observance and date were set by a veterans organization and not by governmental entities.

New York became the first state in the union to adopt Memorial Day as an official holiday in 1873.

By 1890, May 30 was recognized by all of the northern states as a day to remember soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War.

The southern states, still hurting from military defeat, refused to honor a day set aside by a veterans group headquartered in the northern U.S.

In fact, numerous southern states set aside different dates to honor fallen Confederate soldiers.

For example. Louisiana and Tennessee conducted Confederate memorial services on June 3, which happened to be the birthday of Jefferson Davis.

After the end of World War I in 1918, Memorial Day was changed from a Civil War memorial to a day honoring America's dead from all wars.

It was only then that the southern states adopted the May 30 holiday.

In 1915, Moina Michael penned a poem called "In Flanders Fields." Recalling the soldiers who died in World War I, the poem states:

"We cherish, too, the poppy red

"That grows on fields where valor led,

"It seems to signal to the skies

"That blood of heroes never dies,"

In addition to authoring the poem, Michael started the tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day to honor America's fallen soldiers.

Michael began selling the poppies and donating the proceeds to needy families of servicemen.

In 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars was the first U.S. military service organization to sell poppies and donate the proceeds to help veterans.

The wartime significance of Memorial Day has diminished in the minds of many Americans.

In fact, many Carbon County residents and citizens across the U.S. have come to consider the holiday as a time to decorate all graves.

But in the early years of Memorial Day observance, most towns and cities scheduled parades and special ceremonies honoring local war dead.

In recent years, the tradition has faded and school children are frequently not taught the meaning and significance of the holiday.

Beginning with the Vietnam War era of the 1960s, all things military were scorned by many Americans and official observance of the holiday was lessened or stopped in many communities around the country.

The significance of Memorial Day was further diminished in 1971 when President Richard Nixon signed the National Holiday Act. The purpose of the legislation was to ensure a three-day weekend holiday for all federal employees.

To accommodate a three-day holiday, the date of commemoration was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

Today, Memorial Day and Labor Day are called "bookend holidays" that herald the beginning and the end of summer. For many, Memorial Day is simply a three-day weekend when family and friends get together to have fun and celebrate the beginning of warm summer weather. The day holds little or no national significance to most Americans.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, a National Moment of Remembrance Resolution was passed by Congress in 2000.

Unfortunately, it has never been well advertised.

The resolution asks that, at 3 p.m. local time, all Americans "voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence."

In 2002, the VFW took a formal stand against the three-day weekend holiday and stated officially: "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."

The VFW has suggested that the holiday be returned to its traditional day of observance on May 30. They feel this would help return the solemn, and even sacred spirit of the day.

Back in 1999, Senator and wounded war veteran, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, introduced a bill before Congress to restore Memorial Day to its traditional day of observance on May 30. The bill was sent to committee, and has languished there for seven years.

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