In the spring of 1866, Henry C. Welles, a druggist from Waterloo, N.Y., suggested that those who had died in the Civil War should be honored by decorating their graves. In the South, women were already decorating the graves of the dead from both sides.
But Welles’ suggestion caught on in the North, and two years later, Gen. John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, established May 30 as a national day of recognition for Civil War dead at Arlington National Cemetery. By 1890, every Northern state had recognized the holiday. Although it was viewed as a way to honor all Civil War dead, bad feelings ran deep. The South refused to recognize the holiday until after World War I, preferring to honor their dead on a different day.
At its heart, Memorial Day was a way to honor all those fallen in service of the country. Unfortunately, times have changed. Now it is often used as bookend of summer with Labor Day on the other end. Memorial Day has come to mean barbecues and ball games, sales at the mall and a long weekend.
In its early days, the holiday was on May 30, without regard to the day of the week. Because it was not an instant three-day weekend, it seems that the holiday had more meaning back then. Municipalities had parades and people actually went to cemeteries to decorate the graves of war dead. In 1971, Congress, in an effort to give federal employees three-day weekends for holidays, moved the celebration of a number of holidays, including Memorial Day.
There is no way federal employees will ever give up the three-day weekends the 1971 legislation provided. So we are stuck with bookend holidays. But that doesn’t mean we can’t value the holiday for what it was originally intended to be. Those who have died went whether or not they agreed with the policy. As has been the case for our more than 200 years, when the nation calls, Americans answer. And many pay the ultimate price.
We should honor them by taking a little time to make Memorial Day truly a memorial to their sacrifice. Although we can’t help those who are no longer with us, this is a good day to remember the many veterans who fought and survived. Some of them have borne the wounds of their service for many years. Let’s remind them that we value their sacrifice, and they are not alone.
Then Memorial Day may acquire a meaning it seems to have lost.