Since many cemeteries are celebrating Decoration Day during the months of May and June, we find that Memorial Day is a direct result of that particular event. When most people think about Memorial Day, they assume it is just another holiday which is thought to begin summer with all it has to offer. However, it is much more than just the start of the summer season, the ending of the school year or a holiday. Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday which is observed on the last Monday of May, and honors U.S. men and women who died while in the military service. Also, Memorial Day had its origin after the War Between the States had ended, and was first named “Decoration Day.”

Research shows that Memorial Day began three years after the end of the War Between the States, with the name Decoration Day. This was a time set aside to decorate graves of the war dead with flowers. The date of May 30 was selected by Major General John A. Logan; it is believed that this date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country, and it was not the anniversary of a war battle. In 1882 the alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used, but did not become a common practice until after World War II. Also, the name “Memorial Day” did not become the official name until 1967, when a Federal law was passed declaring this. Then, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, moving three holidays to a specific Monday in order to create a three-day weekend. Memorial Day was one of those holidays. By doing this, businesses and individuals mark this holiday as the beginning of the “summer” season. It was not until after World War I that the day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars.

Country singer Craig Morgan has been given credit for having the following message on his Face book page: “Our flag does not fly because the wind moves it. It flies with the last breath of each soldier who died protecting it.” That is a beautiful thought to keep in our minds each time we see the flag and say the pledge to it. We would not be the free country we are today if it were not for those heroes who died fighting for the freedom we have. Since this weekend is Memorial Day, we, as Americans, need to stop and think about all who have fought and died for our land so that we could celebrate this holiday.

According to research done by Professor David Blight of Yale University, the first Memorial Day was observed by formerly enslaved African-Americans at the Washington Race Course in Charleston, South Carolina. (Today this is the location of Hampton Park.) Why the race course? It had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp in 1865, as well as a mass grave for the Union soldiers who died there. At the end of the war, the bodies were exhumed from that mass grave, and given a proper burial with individual graves. The African-Americans built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch, and declared it a Union graveyard. They completed this work in a record ten days; on May 1, 1865, the Charleston newspaper reported that a crowd of up to ten thousand had a celebration at that place, creating the first Decoration Day.

The Battle of Shiloh was fought in April of 1862 in Hardin County, Tennessee, along the Mississippi state line. This battle was one in which more than 3500 troops were killed, and another 16,000 wounded in the two days of fighting. (April 6 and 7, 1862) Most of those wounded were taken to the city of Columbus, Mississippi, which was approximately eighty miles from the area of Shiloh Church. Many of those who died after the trip to Columbus (by train or wagon), were buried in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus. Later that month, the ladies of Columbus visited the cemetery and decorated the graves of those soldiers killed at Shiloh, and those who died as a result of their injuries in battle there. These women also returned the next year to decorate the Confederate graves, and noticed that the graves of the Union soldiers also killed at Shiloh, were not decorated. So, these ladies decided to put flowers not only on the graves of the Confederate soldiers, but on those of their former enemies as well. Therefore, from that act of kindness by the women of Columbus, a new tradition was begun. This day is usually celebrated on a Sunday in most cemeteries to honor ancestors. Some groups place American flags on graves of veterans, have dinner on the grounds, with celebrations which include preaching and singing. Today, many cemeteries still celebrate Decoration Day, honoring those veterans from the past.

On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a Presidential Proclamation which recognized Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The Waterloo story begins during the summer of 1865. According to historical data, Henry C. Welles, a prominent local druggist told some of his friends that it would be good to remember the dead from the War Between the States by placing flowers on their graves. He also praised those who were the living veterans of the war, but wanted to do more. At first, nothing was done about this, until General John B. Murray, a war hero, supported the idea. And, in 1866, Waterloo held a series of very impressive ceremonies, along with decorating the graves of the soldiers. Therefore, Waterloo, New York held the first formal and village-wide annual observance honoring the dead from a war.

Some interesting information from Carmella LaSpada, in a “Dear Abby” column from a Chattanooga newspaper dated May 27, 2016 stated that since 1997, Major League Baseball has stopped all games in progress at three o’clock on the afternoon of Memorial Day to observe the National Moment of Remembrance. In addition, she specified that the umpire steps out from home plate, removes his mask, and halts the game so that everyone can pause. Also, the crowd rises as one with hands over their hearts. Other organizations also observe the moment.

As we think of those who died while serving their country, we need to remember that honoring the dead might not have occurred had it not been for a bloody battle during the War Between the States at Shiloh, and an act of kindness by a group of Southern women who wanted all soldiers to be remembered. Rhea County has had many heroes when it comes to those who have died while serving their country; we also have many who are still serving in the armed forces. This should help us remember to salute the American flag with respect and pride, remembering those who have given their last breath so that the flag could fly with honor and love for our country. Therefore, as your Rhea County Historian, I remind you to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.

Pat Guffey can be reached at pat459@charter.net

Recommended for you