Remembering and honoring all United States soldiers that died in war is, in general terms, what Memorial Day is all about. Originally called Decoration Day, it was not until after World War II that the reference to the current name gained national momentum. Most countries celebrate versions of honoring their war dead. In the case of the United States, given its foundational adhesion to the principle of liberty with its concurrent constitutional republican model and an innate abidance of living within a Christian transcendental order, the solemness and self-identification of this special occasion places Memorial Day among America’s most relevant celebrations.
Union General John A. Logan, a former congressman, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization composed of Union Civil War veterans) and subsequent senator for Illinois, issued on May 5th, 1868, General Order No. 11. This proclamation established on May 30th of that year as a day of remembrance to honor those who gave up their lives for their country in the American Civil War. “The 30th day of May 1868”, read the Order, “is designated 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 church-yard in the land.”
On that first “official” solemn observance at Arlington National Cemetery, three years after the war had concluded, over 5,000 attendees took part and laid flowers on the graves of over 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. While this figure represents only a portion of the over 650,000 servicemen that died in the Civil War, it was a fitting moment to render a just emphasis on their sacrifice. The future 20th president and then Ohio congressman, James A. Garfield, delivered a stirring speech honoring the fallen and befitting the historical conjuncture.
“With words,” eloquently phrased Garfield before the emotional crowd, “we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”
Unofficial celebrations honoring the war dead preceded that of Arlington National Cemetery but were all within the timeframe of the Civil War and in different locations. Mary Logan, General Logan’s wife, related in her memoirs, Reminiscences of a Soldier’s Wife (1905), how while in Petersburg, Virginia’s Blandford Cemetery in March 1868, she observed wreaths and flags adorning the graves of Confederate soldiers and stressed upon her husband the moral urgency for such a national commemoration. Two months later, General Order No. 11 was emitted.
New York became the first state in 1873 to officially designate the holiday. By 1890, all northern states had validated the celebration. World War I expanded the focus of Memorial Day (Decoration Day then). It chartered a new course where, going forward, all those that gave their life while serving the United States during the war would be honored. The National Holiday Act of 1971 stamped this emblematic holiday on the national calendar, although by that time it was a common practice.
Since 1775, with the onset of the American Revolutionary War, up through the war against Islamic terror, well over 1,300,000 American soldiers have died in uniform. While these most honorable acts have been serving the United States, it does paint the full picture. The ultimate sacrifice of the nation’s best has been for many noble reasons and causes. The promotion and preservation, with American blood, of freedom across the globe were enabled by those who Memorial Day honors. The belligerent challenges to tyrannical menaces like Communism, Fascism, and Islamism have come at a high cost and America’s fighting forces have generously and repeatedly answered the moral call of duty. When an American soldier has died serving God, country, and freedom, he has done so for all people of goodwill everywhere. Thank you to our soldiers!