Today, I spent time at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Sadly, it is known for being the bloodiest one day battle in the Civil War – September 17, 1862, saw 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing. Stats courtesy of the National Park Service.
It was a gorgeous day here, temperatures were in the mid 70s and a light breeze kept the sun from being too hot. As I walked around the park and pondered the battle tactics, I got to wondering where Memorial Day came from. What’s the history behind the holiday?
In high school, I was a member of the band (you’re not surprised, are you?), and I remember going to services at the local cemetery and then marching in a parade, but other than dreading wearing the heavy, sweat-inducing uniform in the heat – why we were there? (Wow! What a long sentence!!)
I checked out the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for the official scoop. Some of the first observances occurred at the end of the Civil War (1866) where flowers were laid on the graves of fallen soldiers. Check out the full explanation here.
According to the site, the official birthplace was declared:
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.
The site continues that . . .
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day.
I feel lucky to live in a place that is surrounded by history. As I visited the cemetery and walked Bloody Lane, my thoughts turned to the soldiers who gave their lives, and I was saddened as the combatants in the Civil War were Americans versus Americans – in some cases families against families or brothers against brothers. Such a tragedy that war could not have been averted.
You know me and books – well, I picked up James M. McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. It was very much on sale so I couldn’t pass up the deal!! I sat on the porch of the Visitor’s Center and started reading – it was too nice of a day to be inside and the shady spot called to me.
Early on in the book, McPherson quotes Lincoln as saying in May 1861, “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the majority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.” (p. 5)
Thank you, Mr. Lincoln, for fighting for the Union – for the United States of America.
I want to thank all those who served and have served so that we may be free. I am forever grateful for your sacrifice.
Below are two photos I took today. In the first, I was trying to capture the rolling terrain of the battlefield.
Happy Memorial Day 2014