Memorial Day, 2013 is here, essentially marking the beginning of the summer season (though the official seasonal calendar will argue that we are still some four weeks away from the start of summer). We all have seen the sentiment expressed each year that while we enjoy our long weekends, barbecues, travels, or whatever the holiday weekend brings, we should also not forget the reason for this particular holiday: remembering those who died in the service of our country.
The official roots of Memorial Day are traced back to May 5, 1868 and the Grand Army of the Republic (see our blog entry about the GAR) declaring that May 30th of that year would be proclaimed as “Decoration Day” in commemoration of those who died during the Civil War. Over the next few years, the concept of Decoration Day expanded throughout the North and the United States as a whole.
Arguably, though, the idea (if not necessarily by name) of “Decoration Day” predated 1868, even back to the Civil War itself. A “Confederate Memorial Day” was observed in 1866, shortly after the end of the war, and various commemorations at the dedications of battlefield cemeteries can also lay claim to being at the core of Decoration Day…which (per the title of this blog entry) was officially renamed “Memorial Day” in 1967 – yes, you read that correctly, 1967…only 46 years ago! – even though “Decoration Day” had given way to “Memorial Day” over the years and especially after World War II.
Beyond the history related above, one fact is indisputable: the holiday we will celebrate in a couple of days has its roots in the Civil War…which brings us to the Great Reunion.
All of the veteran attendees of the Great Reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 survived the Civil War…a statement of the obvious considering that they were alive fifty years later. Still, as was noted in speech after speech during the Great Reunion’s official ceremonies, so many of their comrades in arms from both North and South did not. Therefore, the very presence of these old veterans at Gettysburg in 1913 signified a “Decoration Day” or “Memorial Day” every bit as much as the official holiday commemoration. As one reads about the Great Reunion, a significant portion of the events during that long-ago event were not only in honor of those who were still alive and able to attend but also their comrades who had fallen in that long-ago war…the war for which the Great Reunion was intended as the high watermark of healing.
So as we embark on our Memorial Day weekend of 2013, let us keep in our thoughts not only the overarching sentiment of “it’s not only about the barbecues and weekend getaways; we honor those who gave their lives for us” but also the linkage between Decoration Day/Memorial Day and the Civil War in particular…and also the Great Reunion and more than 50,000 old men who honored their fallen comrades from both sides.