Families, communities, and America are stronger when parents teach the reason for and the history of Memorial Day. For many families, Memorial Day marks the first week for camping each summer. For others, it is a day for barbecues and get-togethers. For still others, it is a day to attend commemorations for the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in behalf of their nation.
Stephen W. Stathis published an interesting article titled “How Memorial Day became an American tradition.” He indicated that the commemoration of Memorial Day arose in the years following the Civil War. I can understand why such a war would bring about such an idea. Stathis estimated that 620,000 men lost their lives during the Civil War. Those numbers indicate that there were just as many families mourning the loss of a loved one, plus friends and neighbors of the families.
According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, more than two dozen towns both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line claim to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; and Carbondale, Illinois. Congress officially designated Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day without either a hearing nor any historical documentation. Other contenders, however, haven’t been dissuaded.
One of the very first Memorial Day celebrations was on May 1, 1865, when Black workmen gathered at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, which the Confederates had converted into an outdoor prison. Yale University historian David W. Blight tells us these men reinterred the bodies of Union prisoners of war buried there, decorated their graves, built a high fence around the cemetery, “whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance.” Later that day, they “staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. … The procession was led by 3,000 Black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses. … Several hundred Black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses.”
The article has much more interesting information, and I encourage you to link to it here. Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day when I was a child because it was a day when people put flowers, wreaths, and flags on graves. I remember that my parents took flowers to the graves of their loved ones. Stathis indicated that the “name ‘Memorial Day’ goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. It wasn’t until 1967 that federal law declared ‘Memorial Day’ the official name.”
Whether you call the day “Decoration Day” or “Memorial Day,” it is a good day to teach children and grandchildren the reason why we commemorate the day. This site has the following numbers for the men and women who died in America’s wars.
Civil War (1861-1865) 620,000
World War II (1939-1945) 405,399
World War I (1917-1918) 116,516
Vietnam War (1965-1973) 58,209
Korean War (1950-1953) 36,516
Revolutionary War (1775-1783) 25,000
War of 1812 (1812-1815) 20,000
Mexican-American War (1846-1848) 13,283
War on Terror (2001-Present) 7,057
Spanish-American War (1898) 2,446
Gulf War (1990-1991) 258
We can clearly see that the most people were killed in the Civil War and the two World Wars, but the total is staggering. At least, 1,304,684 people paid the ultimate price because they stood between America and those who would destroy our nation. Wise parents will teach their children about the sacrifices made by all these people and the importance of remembering those sacrifices. Such parents will strengthen their families, communities, and America.