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Memorial Day—a journey of remembrance

May 26, 2011

Memorial Day started as Decoration Day, as proclaimed by General John A. Logan on May 30, 1868. In his General Order #11, he wrote: “The 30th of May 1868, 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 churchyard in the land.” He also wrote, “Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” The general was responding to a growing number of communities who had, in the three years since the ending of the Civil War, taken a springtime day to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, one of the first recorded occurrences of Decoration Day was on April 25, 1866 when a group of women in Columbus, MS, visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in the battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.

One could imagine that this simple ceremony of reconciliation was repeated over and over in communities everywhere, for the losses had been great after four intense years of war, with casualties between battle deaths and disease somewhere in the neighborhood of 650,000. Reportedly, in its first official year, there were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states. Five thousand people participated in the first ritual in the Arlington National Cemetery. In 1869, there were 336 such gatherings.

But this act of reconciliation, recognizing our inherent connection as people involved in a common endeavor—albeit on different sides of the fight—is an aspect of Memorial Day that is all too easily forgotten, edged out by other focuses and agendas.