Brave people die. And civilians … well, they go shopping.
Beginning as a tradition during the Civil War, ladies and schoolchildren in the South regularly decorated with flowers the graves of Confederate soldiers. Although the dates of commemoration varied from region to region, most memorial ceremonies occurred in May. But the sheer number of casualties, both Union and Confederate, meant that burial and memorializing the war dead would soon become of national importance at war’s end. The first known official commemoration of the Civil War dead occurred May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina where 257 Union soldiers held as prisoners of war had died and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Freed slaves knew of the incident and chose to honor them, calling it “Decoration Day.” Nearly 10,000 people, mostly former slaves, gathered at the burial site. Taking notice, the federal government, in 1865, began a program of creating national cemeteries, but only for the Union dead. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union soldiers had been reburied in 73 national cemeteries, located near the battlefields and therefore mostly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
In 1866, Southern states began establishing special days of Confederate remembrance, with the dates ranging from April 26 to mid-June. Across the South, associations were founded after the war, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for Confederate soldiers, to organize commemorative ceremonies, and to sponsor impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for Northern Civil War veterans, proclaimed that a day of remembrance should be observed nationwide. May 30 was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle. Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states that year. Initially, the Decoration Day speech became an occasion for angry veterans, politicians, and ministers to commemorate the War, as well as to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. But by the end of the 1870s much of the bitterness was gone, and the speeches began to praise the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray. In 1882, that day of remembrance began being referred to as “Memorial Day,” and by 1890, every northern state had declared May 30 an official State holiday.
By the end of World War II, the name “Memorial Day” had become common. And although originally created to honor fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War, the day by then had come to commemorate all Americans who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces during all wars. In 1967, Memorial Day was declared the official name by Federal law. Then, on June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, moving Memorial Day from its traditional date of May 30 to the last Monday in May in order to create a convenient 3-day weekend. That law took effect in 1971. Changing the date merely to create a 3-day weekend proved to undermine the very meaning of the occasion, contributing in large measure to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day. The extended weekend has become synonymous with shopping, family gatherings, mini vacations, and national media events like the Indianapolis 500 auto race. Obscured by insignificant civilian activities, Memorial Day has lost its true meaning to all but those who suffered the loss of loved ones in battle, military veterans, and active duty military personnel. With less than 1% of our countrymen currently participating in the defense of our nation, few Americans these days have any interest in the commemoration of battlefield casualties.
Wars are fought. Brave people die. And civilians… well, they go shopping.
Although I wrote the above a few years ago, its historical significance is timeless. With Memorial Day now behind us, I hope that each of you took time to honor our fallen comrades. My thanks to Julian Calderon, Ron Dorsey, James Hart, and John Richter for participating with me as the TAVV Honor Guard at the DAR Memorial Day Ceremony at the State Cemetery here in Austin. Our Combat Cross Ceremony was performed indoors to a packed crowd, which included several Vietnam Gold Star Families as guests of honor. Also, I’d like to thank member Tim Hardy for laying our TAVV wreath at the annual Pflugerville Cook -Walden Memorial Day ceremony. Tim, a Desert Storm veteran whose now deceased father served on a river patrol boat in Vietnam, was honored to participate. And as our Vietnam-era ranks dwindle, it’s good that we’re able to pass the mantle of respect to our younger generation of warriors. Honoring our fallen comrades is not only a privilege, it’s also our sacred duty as American veterans.
See you on Thursday.
Don Dorsey, President
The Austin Chapter of Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans (TAVV) meets Thursday, June 11, 2015 - 7:00 pm at VFW Post 856 — 406 E Alpine Rd - Austin, Texas 78704.