There are several towns that claim to be the home of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was first called. But it was a hundred and fifty years ago this Saturday–May 5, 1868–that a specific date was set aside for the remembrance of the military dead.
The decoration of Civil War dead, in both the North and the South, was already taking place. It was the Commander-in-Chief of the northern veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), that established the recognition that comes at the end of May to remember those veterans that have passed on, whether on the battlefield or after a life which included service to their country. That commander, General John A. Logan, declared that such recognition would come on May 30, 1868.
Logan’s order went out to the members of the G.A.R.:
Washington, D.C., May 5, 1868
I. The 30th day of May, 1868, is 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 churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose, among other things, “of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion.” What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their death a tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the Nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.
If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation’s gratitude,–the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.
II. It is the purpose of the Commander-in-Chief to inaugurate this observance with the hope it will be kept up from year to year, while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades. He earnestly desires the public press to call attention to this Order, and lend its friendly aid in bringing it to the notice of comrades in all parts of the country in time for simultaneous compliance therewith.
III. Department commanders will use every effort to make this order effective.
By command of:
JOHN A. LOGAN,
N. P. CHIPMAN,
The order is copied from the website of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, http://suvcw.org/logan.htm
There is at least one line that is worth repeating: “If other eyes grow dull and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.”
What started out as a measure to remember the Civil War dead has grown to remember the dead from other wars and actions. We gather as many have for 150 years, and in this World War I Centennial year when poppies may prevail, let us remember to keep the solemn trust “as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.”
Lest we forget / Let us have peace.