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By Jim Rhodes
My reader challenge for this month’s blog post is, “Who is the man in this photograph?”
Hint: As I write these words, it’s the Memorial Day holiday in America.
Looking out our window this morning I was gratified to see that the children of the neighborhood had planted more than a hundred small American flags around the park.
Our home is in Norfolk, Virginia, which is home to a large number of military installations, so many of our neighbors are on active duty or – like me – retired veterans of the armed forces.
Today, similar scenes are being acted out, with flags flying at half-mast and ceremonial wreaths being laid in military cemeteries – albeit many of them alas with paltry attendance from a handful of American Legionnaires and other civic groups – across America.
For most of the citizens of our country, of course, it’s an opportunity to enjoy a three-day weekend marking the beginning of the summer holiday season. This year, the Memorial Day holiday takes on added significance as the Covid closures are lifted, and families are happily shedding their facemasks and lathering up with sun lotion as they head out to the lakes and beaches.
Now for the history lesson …
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and had its origins in the years immediately following the American Civil War, as widows and orphans gathered to place flowers on the gravesites of fathers and sons who perished in the great war. These were spontaneous and local events. Over time they became institutionalized as annual celebrations, usually held in the late Springtime when flowers were abundantly blooming.
The first official Decoration Day event was apparently held in Waterloo, New York, on May 5, 1866, one year after the war’s end. Two years later, a former Union Army general, John A. Logan, who headed a newly formed veteran group, called for the 30th of May to be designated as a public holiday across the nation for strewing with flowers the graves of soldiers who died during the rebellion. Logan (pictured above) was a former Congressman from Illinois who served with considerable distinction as a Major General, commanding a division under Sherman – unlike many of the inept “political generals” of Lincoln’s army. He returned to Congress after the war and ran unsuccessfully for Vice President of the United States in 1884. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1886.
So, I think we could say that the Mystery Man in the photo was the “Father of Memorial Day.”
In the American South, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, there was a Decoration Day tradition that preceded the Civil War. People would return to the old homeplace in the Springtime for a gathering to clean up the family cemetery plot and decorate the graves with flowers, followed by a big potluck dinner. Through the years it was claimed that the first official Decoration Day observation in the South was in Columbus, Mississippi, in April 1866, when local women laid flowers at the graves of soldiers on the grounds of a Civil War hospital.
Historical researchers have uncovered evidence of another gravesite commemoration by freed slaves and white missionaries in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1866. The Charleston newspaper reported that some 3,000 Black schoolchildren marched in the procession carrying flowers to strew on the unmarked graves of Union soldiers who died in captivity there during the war. The story was apparently squashed during the era of White Supremacy that followed the end of Reconstruction and was only rediscovered more than 100 years later.
The Decoration/Memorial Day celebration on May 30 evolved into more of a national rather than a sectional observation after World Wars I and II (as Americans fought side by side instead of against each other). Finally, in 1968, the U.S. Congress passed a law declaring that Memorial Day would henceforth be observed as a federal holiday on the last Monday of May, creating a nationwide three-day weekend.
At our household, my wife and I will sit tonight on lawn chairs in front of our house and drink a toast (me with a glass of American bourbon with a twig of freshly picked mint from the garden, and she with a glass of French wine) to “these honored dead” who in Lincoln’s immortal words “gave the last full measure of devotion.”