Memorial Day Weekend is upon us and a busy one it is. We are beginning to inch back to normal. Beginning on Saturday with the Cos Cob Veterans of Foreign War ceremony and continuing through the weekend to the Sound Beach Volunteer Fire Department Parade on Monday, the Greenwich community will come out to celebrate, honor, remember – and barbecue! It will feel like a small town as we greet friends and neighbors.
It is a nuanced weekend. Its original purpose, less clear today than when it began in 1868, was to honor those who died in the Civil War. Three years after the War ended, on May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, called for the establishment of Decoration Day. The Civil War was still fresh in people’s minds and hurt in their hearts. More Americans were killed than in any previous war. Decoration Day was to be held on May 30 – a date free of major battles during the war so as not to recall the horrors of a specific date.
Gen. Logan ordered his posts to decorate graves “with the choicest flowers of springtime,” and 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.”
Indeed, more than 5,000 people gathered for the first observance of Decoration Day held at Arlington National Cemetery. It was rich with symbolism. The former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had become a burial ground for fallen soldiers. In 1868, Union Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant presided over the ceremonies that included speeches on honor and healing as a nation. Afterwards, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republic walked through the cemetery, placing flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate fallen soldiers while singing hymns.
Memorial Day ceremonies quickly spread throughout the country, with state legislatures passing proclamations, and the military adopting regulations for proper observance at their facilities. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor all who gave their lives defending America. Finally in 1971, Congress declared the last Monday in May to be the official Memorial Day and a national holiday.
Today, we can all benefit from reacquainting ourselves with Memorial Day’s origin and meaning. Men and women have died defending our nation from the time of the revolution until today. Each sacrifice was a son or daughter, and chances are very good that more recently they were a father or mother. Each leaves behind an indelible mark, a void that will remain mostly unfilled by their loved ones. The 19th century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher said of those that died in battle: “They hover as a cloud of witnesses above this Nation.” That is a comforting thought.
What are you doing this weekend? Memorial Day is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It is as American as our flag. We should not shy away from its meaning, but ensure the next generation understands the ultimate sacrifice made by those of this generation and previous ones. We should go to the Memorial Day Ceremonies that are occurring throughout town. We should watch the Old Greenwich parade and clap with pride when we see our veterans represented. But we should remember we are not there to just enjoy those who march, we are there to honor those who no longer can.
So yes, enjoy the weekend – it is a busy one. Keep your eyes open for how our community honors all veterans, and especially those that made the ultimate sacrifice. We, here at the Sentinel, say “thank you.”