OAKHURST – From the Little Church at Oakhill Cemetery, to other churches, parks, parades, homes and cemeteries across the country, many will honor fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, Monday, May 26. Some will place flowers on the graves of veterans, while others may spend the day off serving warm-weather treats. Any way you prepare the potato salad, it’s a day to remember the human cost of war.
Nearly 100 years ago, Canadian Lt. Colonel John McCrae was a doctor who served the war-wounded and dying for 17 days during the second Battle of Ypres in western Belgium, during World War I.
With sounds of anguish surrounding him, Lt. Col. McCrea sat on a stoop and reflected on the mix of poppies and graves before him in Flanders Field, venting his heartbreak by writing a poem.
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.
The origins of Memorial Day are many, and some of the facts as to who started it, when precisely, and where, are in dispute. One thing we know for sure: after America’s bloody Civil War ravaged the once undivided nation, more than 600,000 people were dead from battles that pitted blue and grey, north and south, and sometimes even brothers, against one another.
The Civil War ended officially on May 10, 1865. Documented history from South Carolina indicates that freemen in Charleston reburied dead Union prisoners of war and held a cemetery dedication ceremony.
In April of 1866, a group of Mississippi women visited a cemetery in Columbia to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh.
Nearby were the neglected graves of Union soldiers. Reportedly disturbed at the barren site, the women placed flowers on those graves, as well.
Today, cities in Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with its beginnings, including many in the South where most of the war dead were buried.
Gen. John A. Logan gave an order in 1868 for his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime,” urging that “we should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. 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.”
Union veterans established Decoration Day that same year, and the first large observance was then held at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
After World War I the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.
In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.
To ensure the sacrifices of America ‘s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.”
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada stated: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”
An attempt to calculate the number of war dead is both horrifying and somewhat futile, as many facts and statistics are still cause for debate, just as are the origins of Memorial Day. No mere number can illustrate the ultimate impact of the deaths, especially when considering the percentage of the population of the US at the time of these wars, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and all the places in between.
Even when soldiers return from combat, veterans face untold challenges at home. Many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and suicides stateside and overseas have reached unprecedented numbers over the last many years. While some wars are said to be winding down, others seem poised to emerge.
Meanwhile, springtime progresses, and while some will spend Memorial Day placing flowers on the graves of veterans killed in battle or those who died later, others will fire up the barbecue and celebrate an extra day off work with friends and family. Many will do both.
In the foothills, springtime renders fields of golden poppies; in Flanders Field, the poppies were red. A poppy means remembrance in the jargon of war, and if we choose to remember to look, they are all around us.