Southern women scattered spring flowers on graves of both northern Union and southern Confederate soldiers of the Civil War in which over a half-million died. Many places claimed to have held the original Memorial Day, such as:
- Warrenton, Virginia
- Columbus, Georgia
- Savannah, Georgia
- Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
- Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
- Waterloo, New York
One such place was Charleston, South Carolina, where a mass grave was uncovered of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a prison camp. On May 1, 1865, former slaves organized a parade, led by 2,800 singing black children, and reburied the soldiers with honor as an act of reparation and gratitude for their ultimate sacrifice which gave slaves freedom.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, commander of the Civil War veterans’ organization “The Grand Army of the Republic,” called for a Decoration Day to be observed annually on May 30.
President James Garfield’s only executive order was in 1881 where he gave government workers May 30 off so they could decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War.
During World War I, a Canadian Expeditionary gunner and medical officer, John McCrae, fought in the Second Battle of Ypres near Flanders, Belgium. Describing the battle as a “nightmare,” as the enemy made one of the first chlorine gas attacks, John McCrae wrote: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Finding one of his friends killed, John McCrae helped bury him along with the other dead in a field. Noticing the field covered with poppy flowers, he composed the famous Memorial Day poem, “In Flanders Fields”:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Notables who fought in World War I include:
- John J. Pershing, general of the armies
- Douglas MacArthur, brigadier general
- George S. Patton, tank commander
- Leonard Wood, future Army Chief of Staff
- Harry S Truman, artillery officer and future 33rd president
- Eddie Rickenbacker, commander of 94th Aero Squadron
- Quentin Roosevelt, shot down, son of President Theodore Roosevelt
- Alvin York, took out 35 machine guns and captured 132 enemy
- Charles Whittlesey, commander of the “Lost Battalion” behind lines
- Frank Luke – “balloon buster”
- Edouard Izac, naval office captured on U-Boat, who escaped
- Henry Johnson of the “Harlem Hellfighters”
- Dan Daly, Marine Sergeant charged and captured machine gun nests
- Ernest Hemingway, author of “A Farewell to Arms”
- J.R.R. Tolken, British author of “The Lord of the Rings”
- C.S. Lewis, British author of “The Chronicles of Narnia”
Also, Orval William Epperson, born on a rugged Ozark farm near Anderson, Missouri, fought in France during World War I, assigned to the 338th Machine Gun Battalion 88th Division. He is the grandfather of the author of this article.
After World War I, in 1921, President Warren Harding had the remains of an unknown soldier killed in France buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Inscribed on the Tomb is the phrase: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Since 1921, it has been the tradition for presidents to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The number 21 being the highest salute, the sentry takes 21 steps, faces the tomb for 21 seconds, turns and pauses 21 seconds, then retraces his steps.
Memorial Day grew to honor all who gave their lives defending America’s freedom in every war, including:
- Revolutionary War: 1775-1783 – 25,000
- War of 1812: – 20,000
- Mexican-American War: 1846-1848 – 13,283
- Civil War: 1861-1865 – 625,000
- Spanish-American War: 1898 – 2,446
- World War 1: 1917-1918 – 116,516
- World War 2: 1941-1945 – 405,399
- Korean War: 1950-1953 – 36,516
- Vietnam War: 1955-1975 – 58,209
- Persian Gulf War: 1990-1991 – 258
- Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan): 2001-2014 – 2,356
- Operation Iraqi Freedom: 2003-2012 – 4,489
- Ongoing wars against Islamic terrorism and extremism
In 1968, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May.
At the Memorial Day Ceremony, May 31, 1993, President Bill Clinton remarked: “The inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier says that he is ‘Known only to God.’ But that is only partly true. While the soldier’s name is known only to God, we know a lot about him. We know he served his country, honored his community, and died for the cause of freedom. And we know that no higher praise can be assigned to any human being than those simple words. … In the presence of those buried all around us, we ask the support of all Americans in the aid and blessing of God Almighty.”
In 1958, President Eisenhower placed soldiers in the tomb from WWII and the Korean War.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan placed a soldier from the Vietnam War in the tomb. DNA test later identified him as pilot Michael Blassie, a graduate of St. Louis University High School, 1966 and the U.S. Air Force Academy, 1970, whose A-37B Dragonfly was shot down near An Loc, South Vietnam. In 1998, Michael Blassie was reburied at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
In his 1923 Memorial address, President Calvin Coolidge stated: “There can be no peace with the forces of evil. Peace comes only through the establishment of the supremacy of the forces of good. That way lies through sacrifice … ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’”
Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army, wrote the poem:
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
In his Memorial Day address, May 31, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge said: “Settlers came here from mixed motives. … Generally defined, they were seeking a broader freedom. They were intent upon establishing a Christian commonwealth in accordance to the principle of self-government. … It has been said that God sifted the nations that He might send choice grain into the wilderness. …”
Coolidge was citing an election sermon by Judge William Stoughton, a Puritan leader in colonial Boston, April 29, 1669: “God sifted a whole nation that he might send choice grain over into this wilderness.”
Henry W. Longfellow used a similar line in his classic “Courtship of Miles Standish”: “God had sifted three kingdoms to find the wheat for this planting.”
This was explained further in Benjamin Franklin Morris’ classic “The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of The United States” (1864): “The persecutions of the Puritans in England for non-conformity, and the religious agitations and conflicts in Germany by Luther, in Geneva by Calvin, and in Scotland by Knox, were the preparatory ordeals for qualifying Christian men for the work of establishing the civil institutions on the American continent. ‘God sifted’ in these conflicts ‘a whole nation that He might send choice grain over into the wilderness’; and the blood and persecution of martyrs became the seed of both the church and the state. … It was in these schools of fiery trial that the founders of the American republic were educated and prepared for their grand Christian mission. … They were trained in stormy times, in order to prepare them to … establish the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty and of just systems of civil government.”
President Calvin Coolidge continued his Memorial Day address, May 31, 1923: “They had a genius for organized society on the foundations of piety, righteousness, liberty, and obedience of the law. … Who can fail to see in it the hand of destiny? Who can doubt that it has been guided by a Divine Providence?”
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