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May 28th, 2012

All gave some, some gave all: The history and duty of Memorial Day

By Patti Brown

Take this quiz: Memorial Day is…?

A) The official kick-off to summer.

B) The day the pool opens.

C) A three-day weekend of sales, discount coupons and shopping that precedes the week-long extravaganza of Father’s Day sales.

D) All of the above

E) None of the above

School may be almost out for the academic year, but there is one more history lesson we need to review. The origins of what was once called Decoration Day in the United States can be traced back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era when Illinois Gen.  John Logan, the first Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal veterans organization, proclaimed the first national day of remembrance which to be observed on May 30, 1868.

The War Between the States has been called the greatest transforming event in America history. Some 620,000 soldiers died in battle or from wounds, accidents or illness related to the war. Decorating graves is an ancient tradition, and for a country that had endured four years of civil war, decorating the graves of fallen loved ones was an important part of the nation’s mourning rituals as nearly one out of every 50 people died during the four year conflict which officially ended April 9, 1865.

Gen. Logan’s proclamation to the members of the GAR noted that the observance was “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.”

Because Gen. Logan had been a Unionist, many Southerners refused to observe the May 30th date, however more than 5,000 Union and Confederate widows, orphans and fellow Americans along with Ulysses S. Grant and James A. Garfield gathered in Arlington Cemetery for the first national observance in 1868 to decorate the 20,000 graves of soldiers from both the South and the North.

Following World War I, as the nation grieved the loss of 130,000 soldiers, the focus of Decoration Day expanded to honor those who had died in all American wars. In 1971 as America grappled with the Vietnam War and the tensions of anti-war sentiment, Congress declared Memorial Day as an official federal holiday and shifted the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May.

While Memorial Day is often looked at as the official kick off to summer season, the day the pool opens or an occasion to clip coupons and shop some sales, some groups have encouraged a return to the May 30th date so Memorial Day is less of a three-day holiday and more of a solemn memorial to remember American’s fallen heroes.

One effort to ensure the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in the service to our nation is the National Moment of Remembrance Act which was passed by Congress in 2000. This law created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance whose purpose is “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity.”

The Commission encourages all Americans wherever they are to pause at 3 p.m. local time for a minute of silence in unity to remember those who have died so others may live. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group dedicated to veterans of these wars has also taken up the cause for the moment of silence, calling for this to occur at 12:01 p.m. EST following the conclusion of the wreath-laying ceremony will take place at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.  The IAVA “Go Silent” initiative attempts to unify the National Moment of Remembrance across the various time zones of the United States. SiriusXM radio will observe this moment of silence preceded by broadcasting Taps (the bugle call which traces its origins to July 1862 during the Civil War) across its satellite and online music, sports, talk and entertainment channels.

Whether you mark a moment of silence at 3 p.m. CST or at 12:01 EST, Memorial Day is a day to pause and reflect on the sacrifices made by America’s veterans for our freedoms.  Take a walk through an Iowa cemetery and look for graves decorated with American flags in small flag holders that indicate what era the veteran served. As you look at the tombstones standing sentry over the graves, speak the names aloud. For some veterans whose families have long ago passed or who have moved away, you may be the one visitor who comes to pay respect.  As you do, walk with reverence and remember  that all gave some, and some gave all.

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About the Author

Polly Twocents
Polly Twocents is the pseudonym for the political commentary of Patti Brown, a partner in the Iowa Policy Institute, a research and analysis firm specializing in public policy issues. Patti is an Iowa mother of five who has a masters degree in journalism with a minor in political science from Iowa State University and an masters in social work from the University of Iowa. Patti worked for many years as a social worker in hospital, hospice and mental health settings. In addition she has also been a staff writer and columnist for The Catholic Mirror and a writer for The Des Moines Register. She is unabashedly and consistently pro-life and pro-family. As a bleeding heart conservative, Patti believes in a limited, representative government, personal responsibility, individual opportunity, and free enterprise.

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