What is Memorial Day? And where did it come from?
Memorial Day holiday in the U.S. was established to honor soldiers who died in service to their country. It began shortly after the American Civil War as Decoration Day, so called because people decorated the graves of Civil War soldiers. Its origins are claimed in both the North and the South to honor their war dead, as well as by the families of freed slaves who lost their lives as soldiers in the war. Exact dates of widespread observance are difficult to ascertain, however, Waterloo, NY, 1866, is cited by the Federal Government as the birthplace of Memorial Day. But Decoration Day was first broadly celebrated on May 30, 1868, by the proclamation of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic. Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868, “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no 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.”
Memorial Day in the United States continued to be widely observed. After World War I it became a day to honor fallen U.S. soldiers from all wars. In 1971 Memorial Day was designated a national holiday to be celebrated on the last Monday in May and this year it will be celebrated on 29 May 2023
Below is a lovely remembrance of Decoration Day, by Elsie Johnson of Perry, Iowa, written of her memories as a young girl in the 1930s.
Memorial Day Memories
We always called it “Decoration Day” School was dismissed for the year and we looked forward to a summer of freedom. Decorating the graves at “Violet Hill” our local cemetery was always special. Most of our relations were buried in Kansas but we had graves of friends of our parents to decorate. We always used flowers from my mother’s garden - mostly peonies and spring flowers. We always went to the local parade first. It was small but meaningful. Sometimes my father would wear his army hat. The parade would end at the entrance of ”Violet Hill” where appointed men in uniform would shoot off their guns in honor of deceased comrades. Young boys would scramble for the empty shells after the gun salute. We would next decorate the graves of those we knew - our parents explaining who they were and why we decorate graves. We now have a [family] area in the cemetery where my parents, brother, and sister are buried. There is also a plot where my husband is buried by his request in our family plot. It’s a beautifully kept cemetery next to a field of Iowa corn. The area is so serene and peaceful, I’ll be glad to join my family there someday!
Below is an elegy written by A. M. Mettetal after the loss of her son to the Civil War
Fate of Sergeant E. Mettetal – poem
A Poem: Composed in 1890 by A. M. Mettetal
A prisoner lies in the Florence cell
With languid thoughts of home
Of parents dear, of friends beloved
From whom he sought to roam.
He heard his country’s wild alarms
At traitrous hands upraised
To rend the banner, that our sires
With blood and sufferings raised.
The patriotic fires that glowed
Within his manly breast
Roused stern ambitions voice for fame
Sought in the fair lands oppressed.
Decked in a suit of deepest blue
And soldier’s knapsack bound
He bade his home and friends adieu
For deeds of glory crowned.
At Fredericksburg the rebel hosts
Were met in strong attire
There many of our brave boys fell
Neath Secessions galling fire
At Fitz Hugh’s landing we will find
our bravest boys in blue
At Gettysburg they fought, they bled
Still to their country true
On many a battle field they fought
On fair Virginia’s plains
And many of our twenty fourth
Were numbered with the slain.
At the battle of the Wilderness
The fate of one is told
The ‘dashing sergeant’ here was missed
Yet dear the prize was sold
To southern dungeons he’s reduced
To pine away in grief
While friends at home who know his fate
Can send him no relief
For long – long months he’s thus confined
With naught his heart to cheer
Though far away, are parents dear
From whom he longs to hear.
At length a message from the north
Proclaimed the captive free
Proclaimed him free to seek the home
And friends he longed to see.
Alas! poor Emile! tragic fate
Which we must call thine own
Has taken from thy parents dear
A worthy, noble son.
On board the ‘General Lyon’ bound
To fair Potomac’s shore
He little thought that he should see
His native land no more
Yes! there upon the burning deck
Me thinks I see him stand
With features turned to catch a glimpse
Of his dear native land.
Alas! the billows madly toss
Hope dies within his breast
Now conscious that he soon must lie
Beneath the ocean’s crest
The angry waves roll o’er the wreck
At midnights awful gloom
And he’s left struggling with the tide
Against a frightful doom
But all in vain, exhausted now
He sinks beneath the wave
That rolls above that sinking form
To shroud the soldier’s grave
Still do I hear those accents mild
Oh father! mother! hear thy child
He sinks! he dies! he’s gone
No little mound of earth is left
On which to strew my flowers
No marble slab by which to kneel
Mid Elmwoods shady bowers
There’s but one solitary rock
On Carolina’s shore
Cape Hatteras on the Atlantic side
Mid billows deafening roar.
Yes! there he sleeps our darling boy
Who fought our flag to save
But why these tears since now he fills
A martyred patriots grave.
A father’s locks are turning gray
A mother’s voice is dumb.
The sisters smiles have flown away
While I bedeck his tomb.
O! brave defender of our rights
Renew affections chain
The memory of one blighted flower
Can make it strong again
O! Emile we can never forget
The laurels thou hast won
Has made thee follower of our
Brave Gallant Washington.
Composed by A. M. Mettetal
Decoration Day was painfully significant for the sheer number of grieving loved ones left behind after the bloody four year tragedy. 620,000 is the accepted number of soldiers who died in the American Civil War. This is more soldiers than were lost in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined. Remembering the painful loss of these fallen young soldiers is a crucial legacy of war and why we observe Memorial Day.
History Chip is about remembering. This Memorial Day, 2023, we honor the dead and the living with remembrances. Honor someone you love by sharing their story. Share Your Story. Your stories matter!