Americans celebrate Memorial Day with barbeques and bargain sales. Yet often our beach umbrellas overshadow what the holiday means. By looking back at why it was created, we can gain a better appreciation of how -- and why -- we should observe it today.
Memorial Day arose in the aftermath of the Civil War. At that time, each town honored its fallen soldiers separately. Then, in 1868, retired Union General John Logan organized the first national Decoration Day. Serving as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union Veterans, Logan ordered local posts to honor the fallen on May 30, 1868 by "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades, who died in defense of their country."
One month later, Congress established a national Memorial Day, although Americans did not celebrate it in solidarity until after the First World War.
The holiday has evolved, but it remains true to its roots. "It is the purpose of the commander-in-chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year," Logan wrote in his order for Decoration Day. These days, the president executes the national observance and gives the Memorial Day Address at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1950, Congress recognized Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace. In 2000, the president issued a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time each Memorial Day. Since Logan, the president has guided our national observance with moments of silence, prayer, and the playing of Taps.
Originally, Logan wrote his orders for veterans. He urged them to remember the fallen, as long as "a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades." A few years ago President Bush acknowledged, "I know that those who have seen war are rarely eager to look back on it and the hardest memories of all concern those who serve their country and never live to be called veterans. Yet memory is our responsibility." Although generations separate us from Logan's words, many veterans of foreign wars still live among us. Sharing the stories of the lost lives is a tangible way to honor their memory.
But today, Logan's orders speak broadly to all Americans. He could not have foreseen the destructiveness of 20th century warfare. Yet his guidance offers three practical ways for citizens to observe Memorial Day.
- Remember the fallen. For Logan, this meant
decorating their graves with the "choicest flowers of spring-time."
Ceremonies at local cemeteries remind Americans that though war
seems thousands of miles away, our neighbors, classmates and
brothers are involved. America has very few national heroes.
Instead, our heroes are 18-year-olds who commit their lives to
service of their country. As Logan suggested, a proper celebration
of Memorial Day honors these individuals.
- Remember their cause. Logan requested that an
American flag, which "they saved from dishonor," be raised above
the departed. They died for the American flag and the nation that
flag represents. They died in pursuit and defense of her
principles, "liberty and justice for all." The proper honoring of
these individuals unites Americans to their mission.
- Serve their families. Finally, Logan expected that remembering leads to service. "Let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us, a sacred charge upon a nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan," he wrote. A few years prior, Abraham Lincoln gave a similar charge, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Serving the soldiers' widows and orphans is a national duty. Today, war separates thousands of military families. A proper Memorial Day celebration includes serving the families who sacrifice daily for our country.
Memorial Day is not just for the government and veterans; it is a day for Americans. This Memorial Day, let us all follow Logan's orders: Cherish "tenderly the memory of the heroic dead, who made their hearts a barricade between our country and our foes."
Carolyn Garris is program coordinator for the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.