Today, Americans will pause to remember and honor our dead. This is a tradition that began in 1868 when General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11 officially proclaimed May 5 as a Memorial Day. It was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
New York was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
When Congress passed the National Holiday Act in 1970 to ensure a three-day weekend for federal holidays, it was established that the holiday would be celebrated on the last Monday in May. The red poppy has long been associated with Memorial Day. In 1915, inspired by the poem "In Flanders Fields," Moina Michael replied with her own poem:
We cherish too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial Day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and she sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need.
Later, a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom. When she returned to France, she made artificial red poppies to raise money for war-orphaned children and widowed women.
After her "Children's League" disbanded, she approached the Veterans of Foreign Wars for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922, the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies.
Two years later, their "Buddy" poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948, the U.S. Post Office honored Ms. Michael for her role in founding the national poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.
Civil War origins
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was first called, had its origins during the Civil War when the first national cemetery was dedicated at Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863, to honor those soldiers killed during this famous battle of the Civil War.
What is ironic is that although every school child is taught the story of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, what is not mentioned is that President Lincoln was not the main speaker. The fact is, that Lincoln was invited to speak almost as an afterthought. The primary speaker was Edward Everett who spoke for almost two hours, after which Lincoln was introduced and spoke for two minutes.
Lincoln summarized the war in a few short sentences and in so doing was able to capture the feelings and sentiment of an entire country. He mentioned the meeting on a great battlefield and of coming together today to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who gave their lives that that nation might live.
He pointed out that "... we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far beyond our poor power to add or detract."
"This hallowed ground" - what a wonderful description of the final resting place of our military personnel who have died in the service of their country. It is truly descriptive of Gettysburg, where men who fought as enemies in life are laid next to each other as comrades in death.
This year many of us will take time from our busy holiday to honor our dead. Not only the servicemen and -women, but also the friends and family members who have passed on. Their will be tributes across the country, celebrations and parades, but even with all the festivities, for a few moments we become somber as we lay floral tributes on the graves and remember the lives of those we honor.
Yes, this day is a holiday, a time for the living to party and play, but as we search through the markers for our loved ones, we cannot help but feel a sense of awe and reverence as we walk upon this hallowed ground.