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They used to call it “Decoration Day"

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It was a long bitter war. The war split families (including the President’s), received volunteers from every state in the United States and the Confederacy, from British North America, Ireland, Britain, France, Russia, and other countries. The First People, or Native Americans, like the Cherokee and others whilst often at war with the Americans also fought in the “White Man’s War.” One of every sixty people in the United States and Confederacy were casualties of that war.

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The War Between the States or American Civil War caused carnage and devestation but also produced heroes. The end of the war was time to celebrate the last measure of devotion that the mothers and dads, brothers and sisters gave to their country. President Lincoln urged his countrymen “…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. …” whilst giving an address at a battlefield in which a pivotal battle of the war took place a few months prior.

Was President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address given 18 months before the end of the war a first Memorial Day address, though given in November instead of May? One of the first celebrations of the achievements of deceased veterans of was done by freed slaves. David W. Blight, of Yale University wrote about this event, which occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of war were fired. The specific location was the former Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, which had become a Confederate prisoner of war detention centre. Twenty-eight workmen interned the dead prisoners, built and whitewashed a fence around the prison, and wrote “Martyrs of the Race Course” over an arch built over the memorial’s entrance.

Nine o’clock on the first of May, ten thousand people of every caste: teachers, missionaries, former slaves, and contingents of Union soldiers marched and sang in commemoration of the end of the war and of their own liberation from slavery. The 54th Massachusetts , 34th, and 104th USCT (United States Colored Troops) also participated, to celebrate the end of the American Civil War and to confirm their hard-won freedom.” Some consider this the first Memorial Day celebration.

John A. Logan was a general in the United States Army during the war and often considered the one who gave the various celebrations like that in South Carolina a name. He was “commander in chief” of a group of Union war veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic (or GAR), who issued a proclamation, which said in part, “The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit. …”

So this 1 May 1868 is considered the first Decoration Day by many. General Logan’s proclamation was issued in Washington, DC. General (later President) James A. Garfield spoke at the Arlington Cemetery, preceding the decorating of 20,000 Union and Confederate graves by a legion of 5,000 people. Even though the proclamation was spoken in Washington, various cities lay claim to being the birthplace of Decoration Day: Columbus, Georgia, Columbus Mississippi, Macon Georgia, Richmond Virginia, Boalsburg, Virginia, and Carbondale, Illinois, among others. Notice that cities in the former Confederacy were as enthusiastic about decorating the graves of fallen soldiers as were Union cities.

More and more communities hosted their own Decoration Days during the 19th Century, but as the 20th Century dawned and Americans fought more wars in places like Havana, Manila, the Ardennes, Pearl Harbor, Normandy—the post Civil War Decoration Day morphed into a Memorial Day honoring the American fallen of all the wars the servicemen and servicewomen have served in. Afterwards, Americans still fell (and fall) in places like Pork Chop Hill, Hue, Da Nang, Grenada, Kosovo, Baghdad, Somalia, Tora Bora, and in the seas and skies of the world. The 30th of May was the traditional celebration day until Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday of May by the Uniform Holiday Act in the 1970’s.

Communities such as North Highlands, California, still sponsor parades, lay little U.S. flags at the grades of the fallen, purchasing poppies, laying individual flowers and bouquets, marching in parades, and other traditional celebrations. There are also ball games, picnics, sales, and travel—36 million people will be vacationing next Monday. That is two million less than the entire population of California, the most populous state in the United States. However Americans (and others) celebrate the holiday, it is because their recognition of those who “gave their all” in defense of their country.

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