Happy Memorial Day!
(Not to be confused with Veterans Day, Armistice Day, ANZAC day, or Remembrance Day.)
Today is the day to recall the men and women who died in the service of the country, which is not to be confused with Veterans Day, which honors all those who served. (I had to look this one up.)
The origins of this holiday are debatable. Why? Because apparently everyone wants to take credit for the holiday that is the official kickoff to summer? Because it was such a good idea that everyone wants to prove they thought of it first? I don’t really know.
Either way, I believe there is general agreement that the holiday stems from the Civil War. But are we surprised? So many other holidays come from the Civil War that a holiday honoring soldiers killed in the line of duty would be odd not coming from it. Everyone generally agrees on the when (give or take a couple of years), but it’s the where that’s the question.
According to Wikipedia, it could have originated in Warrenton (VA) in 1861, Savannah (GA) in 1862, Gettysburg (PA) in 1863, Boalsburg (PA) in 1864. According to history.com, the holiday officially originated in Waterloo (NY) in 1866, while Wikipedia claims the first widespread observance occurred in Charleston (SC) in 1865, whereas the Department of Veterans Affairs claims one of the first places was Columbus (MS) in 1866.
So to me it sounds like everyone had more or less the same idea at the same time – honor the dead of the greatest national tragedy to date. Let’s just all agree to disagree, okay?
As a national holiday, though, my sources all generally agree.
A Union general, John Logan, was in charge of a Civil War veterans organization and he had the brilliant idea of bringing together all the smaller veterans groups under one umbrella and creating a “Decoration Day”, a day on which to decorate the graves of the fallen. The date picked was May 30, either because it did not land on the date of any particular battle (tactful), or because the flowers were sure to be in full bloom to create a pleasing view (as good as any reason). Decoration Day’s first target? Arlington Cemetery, which was property of the government at that point. Graves of both North and South were decorated with small flags in a touching show of unity postbellum.
Fast forward a little bit and the name “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 instead of “Decoration Day.” Only after WWI (or WWII, depending on who you ask), the holiday was expanded to include the soldiers of all American conflicts. In 1967, the day was officially renamed as “Memorial Day.” In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed, changing four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a convenient Monday, in this case the last Monday of the month. It wasn’t until 1971 that this Monday law took effect nationally and it took a little while for all the states to adjust.
So depending on how you look at it this was the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day as well, although one could also make the argument that the holiday OFFICIALLY officially began in 1967. Hm. Maybe they were trying to drum up support for Vietnam? Shrug.
This year to celebrate, I took my parents to Gettysburg and showed them around the town. They like visiting historical places and have to stop to read every. single. plaque. If you’ve ever gone anywhere with me and I randomly disappear down an alley to read a sign half-hidden behind the dumpsters – that’s where I get it from. Last year I had gone up on Saturday and was able to chat with all of the living historians there, including my favorite Reverend Rene. There was also a War of 1812 guy, a family representing the Wild Geese, and a really awkward really nerdy man who views books the same way I do. But this year we went on a Monday and … there was nobody there.
Maybe it’s because it felt like Memorial Day snuck up on us this year (at least for me)? So. Change of plans. We instead took a leisurely stroll up Baltimore Street, around the Circle, and back down, stopping to read all the plaques and peek in the windows of a few places. They were amazed by how many gift shops there were. Thinking about it, Gettysburg’s whole economy is probably built on tourism. All the places that could be worth seeing, like the train museum, keep the good stuff behind closed doors but have a whole front store dedicated to kitsch with Lincoln’s face on it. So if you ever go … be warned.
It was enjoyable reading all of the signs and plaques, things which I almost take for granted. For lunch, we ate at Sweeney’s Tavern, which is located inside Farnsworth House. I hadn’t eaten there in a couple of years but the food was pretty good, actually, much more enjoyable than the last time I was there with history friend Mel. After lunch, we took our places along Baltimore Street to get ready for the parade to come through.
The parade itself was really quaint and small-town-y. It started off with the elementary school band, which was actually pretty decent for 4th and 5th graders. The younger kids were all decked out in red, white, and blue clothing and frolicked around while their parents herded them down the street. They were followed by the middle school band, and then by representatives of the USS Gettysburg. The rest of the parade participants in no particular order: the Freemasons, Zembo (a Mason off-shoot), Job’s Daughters (girl youth branch of Masonry), Marine club, representatives from every major American War, the Mayor, the district representative, a cop car from each of these (Gettysburg Town, Adam’s County, PA, National Park Service), some gold star mothers, JROTC, Junior Marine Corps, the local National Guard chapter, some Union guys pretending to be from the 20th Maine, some Confederate guys, a champion baton twirler, the high school band.
Oh, there were also Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and a lady from the DAR.
Oh, and there was a Robert E Lee (decent representation) and an Abraham Lincoln (who looked terrible).
Oh and a bunch of WW2 jeeps that caught my mother’s attention. She says she wanted to drive one as her first car back in the 60’s or 70’s. She also pointed out that then, WW2 was maybe 20 or 30 years old. Huh. I hand’t thought of it like that.
And then we stopped by the Irish Shop (because Irish), and then drove back to DC, stopping at the Catoctin Mountain Orchard for fresh baked pie.
I don’t think I have anything profound to say about the parade. I like it because it’s so small-town-y and cute. I like it because it portrays the whole spectrum of American conflicts in a place that is known for one of the most devastating. It’s kind of a redneck town (the Tea Party is strong there), but they make it clear just through their presentations of information that the Confederate Flag’s presence is from historical respect, etc, etc, and not any supremacy thing. I like how all the participants, with the exception of the reenactors, are totally local to the area. I like how people dress up to spectate the event. I was disappointed I didn’t see anyone I knew.
But that’s not really the point, is it? This day is to remember those who “gave the last full measure of their devotion” to their cause. My facebook feed has been full of pictures of soldiers bent over a pair of boots with dog tags they know, which is a powerful reminder that this day means a lot more to some people than just the opening of the pool and the official start of summer. I personally don’t know anyone who’s been killed in the line of duty, but I do have friends (or at least peripheral relations … thanks facebook) with people who have been or are currently deployed. And my grandfather, who obviously survived but is buried in Arlington. (wOOt.)
And for those who gave everything but that very final measure of their devotion, there’s places that help. My last major project for class focused on the Veterans Crisis Line, a secure phone number for 24/7 counseling. From my research, it looks like the most reputable/funded source for military mental health. For physical injuries, there’s the Wounded Warrior Project.
ANYWAY. To conclude: Happy Memorial Day, thank a Vet, enjoy the three day weekend!
Almost totally unrelated: I had started this art project a while ago (like, years ago) and had totally forgotten about it until today. The concept was a series of three images with figures from three American conflicts sitting at the bar in Sweeny’s Tavern. This is the best picture I could find on the internet. (Most of the search results are for how haunted Farnsworth House is…creepy). Anyway, so obviously there would be a Civil War guy because it’s Gettysburg. The second guy would be WW2 because of the Eisenhower Historical Site. The third would be a Korean War guy because I needed a third guy. So today at lunch, I looked over at the bar and there was a WW2 guy there sitting at the corner at the exact angle I had imagined. I think he caught me grinning stupidly at him a couple of times. I was too shy to go up and ask him if I could take a reference picture. I wasn’t shy because of him, but because I’ve never done the full investigative-reporter-interrogation in front of my parents before. I thought it was best to ease them into this whole hobby. It’s like I have foresight or something.