What is Memorial Day all about? The History and the Facts

Memorial Day, celebrated on the last Monday of the month of May, began as a day to “decorate” the graves of both Northern and Southern Civil War dead with flowers in remembrance of their sacrifice. The bloody conflict had seen neighbor fighting neighbor and brother fighting brother, and for a long time afterward there was animosity between the two factions. Decoration Day is said to have begun in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866 because the city had made it community wide event where the community’s citizens and businesses took part in decorating the graves and remembering the sacrifice of those Civil War and Revolutionary soldiers from their community. As early as 1861, there were less formal decoration days that were held in the spring every year to decorate with flowers and remember their sacrifice in the conflict. Those remembrances were held in Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and, Carbondale, Illinois during and after the Civil War.

Memorial Day is a day to “decorate” the graves of our war dead that number over one million men and women since the Revolutionary War which ultimately gave rise to the country we know and the freedoms we all enjoy. The United States during its War of Independence from Great Britain suffered 6,284 battle deaths and up to 70,000 deaths from all causes during the entire five years that it took to force General Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown. Memorial Day is a day to remember those patriots who originally bought our freedom from Great Britain so that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Adams, and those first leaders could craft the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights giving us the freedom to do as we wish on this national holiday.

In 1812, Great Britain decided that she would not allow the United States to continue to be free and invaded again in attempt to force the country to once again subjugate itself to the vagaries of an imperial British government. That did not work out too well for Great Britain because 2,200 Americans made the ultimate sacrifice in battle to repel the British from US soil. The total war dead for the War of 1812 was 15,000 from all causes which means that in order to gain and keep its independence, 85,000 Americans made the supreme sacrifice to maintain those freedoms and liberties that were originally won in 1783.

On May 30, 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed the first national day a remembrance for all those soldiers who had died on the nation’s battlefield during the recent war of rebellion. The land for Arlington National Cemetery had been forcibly annexed from General Robert E. Lee’s estate and declared to be a cemetery for our nation’s honored war dead. General James Garfield spoke to 5000 people who then “decorated” the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried on the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.   The Civil War saw 655,000 die on both sides and they deserve to be remembered for their sacrifices. Memorial day is a day to remember those who fought and died on both sides because each believed they were doing what their “country” asked. We still honor both sides for the freedoms they sought and should remember the honorable soldiers on both sides. They deserve our honor and our thanks for their service no matter their cause, North or South. We cannot erase history; only honor it.

In 1898, Spanish agression threatened to overrun the United States and the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor prompting President McKinley and Congress to declare war on Spain on April 21. The Spanish-American War was fought throughout the world from Cuba to the Philippines by both the Army and the Navy. In Cuba, future president Theodore Roosevelt made a name for himself when he lead his special battalion of  “Rough Riders” at the Battle of San Juan Hill. During this short four month campaign that ended with Spanish surrender on August 13, 1898, American war dead numbered 3,013 and they should also be remembered for their sacrifice which gave Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam their freedom from oppression by the Spanish.

From 1914 until April 6, 1917, the Great War as it was known prior to World War II had raged in Europe and killed civilians and soldiers alike by the score. The United States under President Woodrow Wilson was hesitant to entangle the country in a foreign war that would not provide the US any tangible return on an investment of American blood just to keep France and Great Britain secure in their freedom from the tyranny of the German government under Kaiser Wilhelm. When word leaked that the Germans were secretly negotiating with Mexico to invade the United States, President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war which was voted upon and approved on August 6, 1917. With that declaration, the United States sent 4,743,826 troops to Europe to fight the Central Powers which included the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria. By November 11, 1918, the United States and the Allied Powers had forced an armistice with the Central Powers. In all, 116,708 American soldiers made the supreme sacrifice to free Europe from tyranny. They deserve to be remembered because they were the men who turned the tide of war for France and Great Britain and helped those nations maintain their freedoms and liberties.

From November 11, 1918 until December 7, 1941, the United States remembered both Armistice Day (Nov 11) and Decoration Day where they honored the war dead. These remembrances were handled by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the Confederacy, and any number of other organizations that wanted to honor and remember those soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice to hold on to the freedoms and liberties that we share today.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor sending 2,403 young men to their eternal resting place among the heroes of the United States. The survivors of that day have said, “In a matter of 120 minutes, I grew from a boy to a man and I knew we were in a fight.” From December 7, 1941 through September 2, 1945, 407,300 American soldiers made the supreme sacrifice and many more had been wounded in order to free the world from the tyranny of Germany, Japan, and Italy. These men who sacrificed themselves gave rise to a world where the freed nations could now choose for themselves the form of government they desired and out of the ashes of Germany and Japan rose democracies that became staunch allies of the United States. Memorial Day is a day to remember and decorate the graves of these heroes who so gallantly served and gave their lives not only to continue our freedoms but to give freedom to others in formerly oppressed nations.

From World War II through 2017, 120, 077 Americans have sacrificed their lives so that we can enjoy freedoms that we have been recently taking for granted. If your goal for this Memorial Day is to see how much alcohol or hot dogs you can consume without giving thought to the reason you received the day off then take this as a reminder that your freedom to have fun on land or water was bought by all 1,394,000 soldiers who died from the American Revolution through Operation Inherent Resolve in Afghanistan. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to all the families who have given up sons and daughters so that I could have the freedom to write and work in a nation where my rights are protected and upheld by the United States Military.

This quote by Abraham Lincoln gives the main reason that we should remember all those who have fallen in service of our country,

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.”

So, on this sacred day, please give thanks and say a prayer for all those Americans who sacrificed for us to be able to do most anything we want today.

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2 Replies to “What is Memorial Day all about? The History and the Facts”

  1. Great read! Really interesting, and keeps things in proper perspective. Great job, Stan. Thank you.

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