Suanne Z. Thamm
May 24, 2020
Editor’s Note: Since this piece, written by Suanne Z. Thamm, is an all time favorite for many of our readers on Memorial Day, we repost it here. On this special day, we join our community in remembering and giving thanks for our military men and women who have given their lives for our country.
Memorial Day Service will begin on Monday, at 11:00 a.m. The service will take place by the Memorial Statue in parking lot A- on Centre and Front Streets. Please bring your own chair if you would like to sit down.
Deck them with garlands, those brothers of ours,
Lying so silent by night and by day
Sleeping the years of their manhood away.
Give them the meed they have won in the past;
Give them the honors their future forecast;
Give them the chaplets they won in the strife;
Give them the laurels they lost with their life.
If you remember observing Decoration Day on May 30th, you and I may share some of the same memories. In my hometown, all the dads and the uncles and brothers stood together on that day, sharing memories of the conflicts they had served in and the buddies they had lost. Many of these men marched in our annual Decoration Day parade, either as members of the VFW, American Legion or members of the volunteer fire department’s drum and bugle corps. I clearly remember my Great Uncle Clarence driving to our little village from his farm to march. Uncle Clarence had been gassed in World War I, the Great European War. But despite breathing difficulties, he marched. We even had a couple of veterans from the Spanish American War still around, although they were either pushed in wheelchairs or driven in shiny autos, waxed and cleaned specially for the occasion. My dad and uncles never talked about their World War II service, nor did some of the younger guys in my neighborhood who had served in Korea. But we knew that they had fought for their country. And that made us all very proud.
Our mothers, grandmothers and aunts picked the best flowers from their gardens so that they could be used to decorate the graves of those who were no longer with us. Sometimes we were allowed to place small American flags on their graves as we trailed through the cemeteries with the adults.
Only after these duties were performed did we turn our attention to picnics and ball games. As daylight began to fade, many of our dads would have left the family festivities to gather at the Legion Hall or the VFW Post along with many other veterans to toast their fallen comrades. Soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen were all united by experiences that were far beyond our abilities to imagine or understand.
Origin of Decoration Day
Decoration Day began shortly after the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, when the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered on the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
But local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves, as well.
Today, cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866. Both Macon and Columbus, Ga., claim the title, as well as Richmond, Va. The village of Boalsburg, Pa., claims it began there two years earlier. A stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was the wartime home of Gen. Logan. Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.
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. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation renaming the day Memorial Day in 1967.
Gen. Logan’s order for his posts to decorate graves in 1868 “with the choicest flowers of springtime” urged: “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Has Decoration Day/Memorial Day lost its meaning today?
I read somewhere recently that when asked why we celebrate Memorial Day, some children said, “Because that’s the day the swimming pools open.” Other people—grown-ups who should know better—often regard it as just a 3-day weekend or an opportunity to take advantage of big retail sales. Honor a fallen soldier by getting a great deal on a car or a mattress?
With the demise of the Selective Service draft, fewer and fewer families are touched today by loss of a loved one in the service of our country. Fewer than one percent of us serve in uniform, yet that small cadre is called upon, tour after tour, to return to the battlefield in defense of our national values and interest. We owe them and their families so much more than supportive bumper stickers and ribbons.
Although James A. Garfield, later to become President of the United States, delivered the first Decoration Day speech in 1868, the President widely recognized for delivering the first speech commemorating the Civil War dead was Abraham Lincoln, whose brief, stirring words dedicated a cemetery in Gettysburg, PA, on November 19, 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. Lincoln reminded his audience:
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I urge you to remember these words and those who gave that last full measure of devotion on Monday. Join me and other local residents at the foot of Centre Street at 11:00 a.m. to recognize the sacrifices of those who have sacrificed — and continue to sacrifice — on our behalf.
In the meantime, you might appreciate this touching tribute to the fallen:
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.</e