Monday, May 21, 2018

Fields of flags

Curiosity got the best of me when I sat down to do the column today. I knew I wanted to write about Memorial Day. It was a time when grave stones were cleaned and grass trimmed. Mom and Aunt Welma allowed me to tag along running around looking at markers at Cromer Cemetery and Newcomers Cemetery. It was a tradition practiced by each family. However, there is much more to learn about this holiday. With the help of the History Channel, I found my interest fed.

It was the late 19th century that the US began the practice of honoring those fallen in battle. Ancient Greeks and Romans actually had annual days of remembrance for all loved ones. There began the practice of placing flowers on graves and holding feasts in their honor. Athens held public funerals for the fallen after each battle with public viewing before delivering them to the grave. (Hope they had outstanding morticians.).  In 431 BC, one of the first public tributes to fallen soldiers was held there.

Thousands of Union soldiers were held prisoner in a horrible camp in Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War. More than 250 died from disease or exposure. On May 1, 1865,  three weeks after the Confederacy surrendered, more than 1,000 recently freed slaves accompanied by US Colored Troop regiments and a handful of white Charlestonians gathered in that camp to consecrate a new proper burial site for the Union soldiers who died there. They distributed flowers and sang. Flowers and music.

So how did we get to May 30th. Hm. It seems that in May 1886 General John A. Logan who was then commander-in-chief of the Union veterans' group issued a decree that May 30th should become a national commemorative day honoring the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War. It was then dubbed Decoration Day. Logan wanted Americans to lay flowers and decorations at the graves of war dead. However, before Logan took up the cause, women's groups across the south gathered to decorate the Confederate graves. The Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia, decided to honor the fallen once a year. Perhaps Logan caught his idea from them.

American love special holidays thus embracing Decoration Day. In the first year, more than 27 states embraced it. By 1890 every former state of the Union adopted it as an official holiday. And now we have an 'oops'. This Decoration Day only honored those who died in the Civil War. It was not until 1970 that it became an official holiday honoring the fallen soldiers of all wars. 

Of course, the day has changed with placement of Memorial Day on the last Monday in May. I remember laughing that May 30 was going to fall on the last Monday in May whether it was the 30th or not. Another 'hm' moment.

In looking to this Memorial Day, you might just carry a bit of this column with you. A day of remembrance that began in our country with a war within our borders. A war that tore families and the country apart. I am saddened that we still lose soldiers to wars. What is the price. Perhaps we can measure it in the flags flying on graves. Fields of flags.

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