Memorial Day is officially 150 years old this year.

According to the Veterans Administration, Memorial Day was established in May 1868 by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union Civil War veterans, and set as Decoration Day on May 30 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan.

The first large observance was at Arlington National Cemetery, former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and was presided over by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Following speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate dead, the VA history states.

The first recorded tribute to Civil War dead, however, was in April 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi, when women placed flowers on the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers who had fallen at Shiloh. The VA also credits Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois, with ceremonies honoring Civil War dead of both sides prior to Decoration Day in 1868. Some 25 sites, many in the South, claim a connection with the origin of Memorial Day, according to the VA.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the birthplace of Memorial Day a century earlier. By 1900, Memorial Day was celebrated throughout the nation on May 30 and expanded after World War I to honor veterans who had died in all wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and set the observance on the last Monday in May.

Though veterans of all wars are at rest in cemeteries throughout the United States, many in national cemeteries, Springfield National Cemetery was established in 1867 as a final resting place for Union soldiers who died in Civil War battles around Springfield — the Battle of Wilson’s Creek (Aug. 10, 1861) foremost. The cemetery includes a 6-acre portion established by the Confederate Cemetery Association in 1871 and added to the national cemetery by an act of Congress in 1911.

At rest in the national cemetery is Wilson’s Creek commander Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general killed in the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate dead are honored with various statue and plaques within the cemetery, as are veterans of all later wars, including five African American “Buffalo Soldiers” and five Medal of Honor recipients.

These notes barely scratch the surfaces of historical information on Memorial Day and the honors afforded military veterans in our national cemeteries. Much more can be found on the VA and Springfield National Cemetery websites.

On a personal note, I find it interesting that in the wake of the Civil War, survivors of the conflict both North and South saw fit to honor the fallen of both sides. At a time when Confederate memorials are being challenged and toppled, might we not consider the magnanimity of that earlier generation who put aside politics and prejudice to honor courage and sacrifice, and do likewise?

Just something to think about, 150 years hence.  

Copyright James E. Hamilton 2018

Jim Hamilton is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Contact him at jhamilton000@centurytel.net.

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