Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Memorial Day

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep...

In this year of the Civil War 150th anniversary commemorations, did you know that the day set aside to honor all war dead began unofficially when Southern women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers. On May 5, 1868, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, Gen. John Logan, officially proclaimed May 30 as a day of remembrance. On the first official Day, at Arlington National Cemetery the graves of Union and Confederate were decorated and Gen. James Garfield made a speech. For many years the Day was referred to as Decoration Day and several northern and southern cities claimed to be the birthplace of the observance. In 1966, President Johnson named Waterloo, NY as the founding site. Several states in the South have also added an additional day to honor the Confederate dead.

After World War I, the Day was set aside to honor all war dead. All readers of a certain age can at least remember a few lines of the poem by Canadian poet Lt. Col. John McCrae In Flanders Field. In 1915 another poet, American Moina Michael, conceived of the idea to wear red poppies as a way to honor the dead. The proceeds from the sale of poppies benefit servicemen in need. This custom was adopted in Europe to benefit orphaned children and widows of servicemen.

Though the poem In Flanders Fields received mixed literary reviews, it presents a powerful image of war dead that cannot be denied.

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.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, In Flanders Fields. May 1915

Memorial Day observances diminished after World War II, possibly a consequence of the new prosperity and consumerism. Unofficially the Day became the beginning of summer and the outdoor grilling season and the washing and waxing of one's car to the drone and hum of the Indianapolis 500 car race. While military cemeteries went ignored and neglected, some families treated the day as a national remembrance of all souls and decorated and picnicked at family gravesites.

Some balance between the purpose and seasonality began in the late 1950s when the 3rd US Infantry re-established the practice of placing American flags on gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery. Throughout the nation the VFW and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts mark the graves at other cemeteries. To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the Congress passed in December 2000 a National Moment of Remembrance Resolution which asked that at 3 pm local time, all Americans should observe a moment of silence or listen to Taps. Some veterans, who were irritated by the 3-day weekend holiday, considered it a distraction from the meaning of Memorial Day and started a movement to return the commemoration to May 30.

Local jurisdictions' celebrations include both Southern and National Commemorations to war dead, as well as the traditional and non traditional observances. After the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial, veterans of that conflict started a "rolling thunder" of motorcycles through the countryside toward Washington, DC. In 2010, in Franklin, WV, the local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy dedicated a memorial at Cedar Hill Cememtery to honor Pendleton County men who fought for the Confederacy. Likewise, the Turner Ashby Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy holds annual Memorial Day services at the Confederate Monument in Woodbine Cemetery in Harrisonburg. Also in 2010, Shenandoah, Grottoes, and Broadway-Timberville held late morning observances and in Harrisonburg a WWI cannon produced a boom at JMU's Memorial Hall. A traditional parade was held in Shenandoah. Unlucky students in Harrisonburg spent the day in school to make-up for lost classroom time due to heavy snows the previous winter. For 2011, events for the weekend include a Valley Fest of Beer and Wine tasting and a concert at Hopkins Villages at the Massanutten Resort. Returning to the beginning, a Civil war program and re-enactment of the 1861 Great Train Raid in Strasburg will be held between May 27 and 29 (Daily News-Record. May 29 and June 2, 2010)

Please help us to honor all the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces.

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