Earlier this week we sent a pair of our intrepid interns out to talk to people for our “For the Record” feature. This week’s question: What does Memorial Day mean to you?
Frankly, I feared they would come back with responses like, “It’s a great opportunity to go to the beach,” or “I get to have a cookout and a party.”
But thankfully, most of the folks they talked to nailed it.
“I think it’s very important to remember the people who did give that ultimate sacrifice,” said Russell Ballard of Wilmington. “They left their family, their friends, their hometown … so I just think we need to take some time to remember that.”
Exactly, Russell. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Memorial Day is not just a three-day weekend and an excuse to get to the beach, or grill, or to shop the many sales. It is not just the kick-off weekend to the summer season. The purpose of the holiday is to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in defense of their country.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website states, “Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May, commemorates the men and women who died while in the military service.” Since the Revolutionary War, that’s about 1.8 million deaths we are commerating.
It is one of our oldest holidays, with roots stretching back to the Civil War. The bloodiest conflict in American history prompted the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. In the years following the war, it became tradition to hold springtime tributes to the fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and saying prayers.
John A. Logan, a former general in the Union Army and national commander of the “Grand Army of the Republic” — an organization for Northern Civil War veterans — issued a General Order 11 on May 5, 1868, designating May 30 as a day for “strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades, who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every City, Village, and hamlet, church yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Decoration Day, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
During World War I, the holiday began to memorialize military personnel who died in all American wars. It continued to be observed on May 30 until 1971, when Memorial Day became a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act gave many of us a three-day weekend and unofficially established Memorial Day as the beginning of summer. There’s little doubt that it also shifted the focus from solemn to fun.
For a lot of people, Memorial Day is also the start of backyard barbecue season. Some 57 percent of us are expected to fire up the grill on Monday. For others, it’s a day of partying. The town of Wrightsville Beach is making sure it has ample police presence for the expected crowds — and alcohol consumption — this weekend.
There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun over the Memorial Day weekend. But this year, let’s at least spare a thought for the many who have fallen while serving to ensure the freedoms we enjoy.
Put out an American flag or drape the house in bunting.
Locally, there are at least two observances. In keeping with the original spirit of Decoration Day, there is a ceremony scheduled at the Wilmington National Cemetery — which dates back to the Civil War era — at 11 a.m. on Monday. The Battleship North Carolina holds its annual event, free to the public, at 5:45 p.m., with speakers, a 21-gun salute by a Marine Corps Honor Guard, the playing of taps, and a memorial wreath cast onto the Cape Fear River.
No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can all take part in the national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m., when all Americans are asked to observe a minute of silence to remember and honor the fallen.
Although it technically doesn’t fall within the auspices of the holiday, let’s also say a prayer for those injured — physically and mentally — while serving.