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Memorial Day Holiday in the U.S.

May 10 2023

Memorial Day Holiday in the U.S.

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!