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The Ant Hill : Decoration Day

The Ant Hill

by Anthony Jovinelli

Decoration Day 

Monday, May 28th marks the unofficial start of the 2012 summer season. (The actual beginning of summer falls on the day of the Solstice, which is June 20th) This long weekend for most of us, anyway, it is more recently devoted to drives to the beach, picnics in the park, shopping, the Indianapolis 500 and least we forget, the backyard Bar-B-Que. Was it always this way though?

After the conclusion of the American Civil war “Decoration Days” were initiated to commemorate fallen Union soldiers. However; these were not considered a National Holiday for quite some time. Back then, the actual date would have been left up to the individual state, region or municipality to set, but it was still usually held sometime at the end of May. In 1865, the American Government believed that the burial and memorialization process would be an important part of closure to the war. However, due to the enormity of the number of soldiers killed during this conflict, the idea for creating national cemeteries for the Union dead was originated. It was at this time that the first observances of a day of memory for those killed began to grow in popularity.

The first known event was a gathering of over 10,000 people at what is referred to today as Hampton Park. During the war, Union soldiers were held prisoner at the Charleston, South Carolina Race Course. It is believed that approximately 260 men died and were hastily buried there, in a mass grave, as the Confederate soldiers retreated from the position. In appreciation for their sacrifice, freed slaves cleaned up the landscape and erected a monument to the soldiers who died fighting for their freedom. An arch over the site proclaimed the area for the “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And on May 1st of 1865, together with Teachers, Missionaries and over 3,000 children from the Freedmen (Freed slaves) School gathered to venerate the dead. This day came to be known as the first “Decoration Day” as it was proclaimed in the New York Tribune. On May 5th, 1968, the Commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John A. Logan proclaimed that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide. May 30th was chosen as it was not on the anniversary of any of the Civil War Battles. Events were held in 27 states to encompass over 180 cemeteries. At first, it was only a State holiday as Michigan recognized it “officially” in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit.

Although originated in the North, Southern Women’s organizations or School children would utilized the day to place markers and decorations on the grave sights of fallen Confederate soldiers as well. Historians have traced the first such tradition to an 1866 series of events planned by various “Ladies Memorial Associations” with dates ranging from the end of April to mid-June of that year. These associations were organized to establish permanent care for cemeteries and to commemorate those who gave their lives for the Confederate cause and traditions. These early ceremonies were somber gatherings filled with prayer, hymns and speeches with emphasis on honoring specific soldiers and elevating them to public commemoration. These traditions carried until the end of the First World War as the theme of American Nationalism became more popular throughout the land.

Eighty-five years passed from the first use of the term “Memorial Day” in 1882. It did not actually become an accepted reference until after World War II though and it became official nomenclature by federal law in 1967. The May 30th date was observed up until the “Uniform Holiday Bill” was passed in Congress on June 28, 1968. This Act moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday. Memorial Day is always the last Monday in May. Many people still believe that changing the date to create a three-day weekend has undermined the meaning of the day and contributed to the general public’s nonchalant observance. However, the new date continues to endure as many businesses observe it because it does marks the unofficial start of the summer season.

This too has its roots in history. As the late spring weather produced warm sunny days, the desire to return to the fresh air from the confines of a musty home drove people to outdoor events. In many of the rural areas, most families had a “Family burial graveyard” as members would travel from far and wide to gather the day began to take on the characteristics of an extended family reunion. After a brief religious memorial service, Pot-luck meals were usually enjoyed on a large sheets or tablecloths that were placed on the ground near the plot.

Today, many people observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries, National monuments or the local parade. Most of these events will include everything from religious services to political speeches and Marching bands to Military service personnel and equipment. A National Memorial Day Concert, which takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol Building, is performed and respect is paid to the Men and Women that gave their lives to protect this country and the freedom we enjoy.

So, here’s hoping your “Decoration Day” is Memorable!

“The Noblest question in the world is: What good can I do in it?”

                                                                        Ben Franklin



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