from: A Day for Remerberin’
written by Leah Henderson
illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021
This past weekend marked the 100th anniversary of my town’s first Memorial Day Celebration. We were not the first town to mark the occasion. Besides Charleston, South Carolina, over 20 different cities claim that distinction.
I always thought (was this part of my formal education!?) that Memorial Day commemorates the soldiers who died in Flanders Field amongst the poppies. The field is in the medieval County of Flanders spanning southern Belgium and north-west France and served as a major battlefield on the Western Front during WWI. Memorial Day gradually expanded to include the dead of all American wars, I always thought.
In my own town, veterans distribute red, silk poppies as a remembrance to those who gave their lives to protect our freedom during that war. Click the link and scroll down to see a couple of beautiful photos of Belgian poppies.
But long before the end of WWI on November 11, 1918, the club house of a racecourse in Charleston, SC was converted into a prison for captured Union soldiers during the Civil War. Less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, twenty-eight newly freed men living in Charleston, were joined by regiments from Massachusetts and a few white Charlestonians. They spent ten days digging fresh graves and reburying the “Martyrs of the Race Course” who died during their captivity. To give them a respectful resting place, each fallen Union soldier was placed in an individual plot and marked with a headstone. (info from Leah Henderson’s book, quoted above)
When the burying was finished, the people sang hymns, delivered and listened to speeches, and decorated the new graves with flowers.
In May, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a decree that May 30 should become a day set aside to commemorate the over 650,000 lives lost in the Civil War. He chose May 30 because “it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle.” Also, flowers across the country would be in bloom. https://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-memorial-day
It was two years earlier, though, on May 5, 1866, tiny Waterloo, New York closed every store, shop, and place of business and held a ceremony for those who had fought in the Civil War. Year after year the people in Waterloo remembered their heroes. One hundred years later, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, NY to be the Birthplace of Memorial Day.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved most National holidays to Mondays, and in 1971, Decoration Day’s name was changed to Memorial Day, and it also was moved to a Monday, the last Monday in May.
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops to the Union's Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Although we had skirmishes with Mexico and other Latin American countries after the Civil War ended, the United States did not engage in major warfare until 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
During the second year of WWI, soldiers started noticing the blazing red fields of poppies and began writing home about them.
The day after his friend was killed in battle, a Canadian doctor, John McCrae, wrote his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” to describe the field of makeshift graves blooming with wild poppies.
Here’s the first stanza of Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
Sadly, the United States has fought many wars since the War to End All Wars. Under President Joe Biden’s direction, we are slowly untangling ourselves from our longest war. Many young adults today can’t even remember when we were not at war.
On a field trip to Washington DC in May, 1996, a group of school children was asked why they think there is a holiday on Memorial Day. “It’s the day the pools open!” they responded. That same month a Gallup poll discovered that only 28% of Americans knew the meaning of Memorial Day.
Clearly, this was a problem.
The idea for a National Moment of Remembrance was born of the concern and sorrow of many people coming together. On December 28, 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act. It is an informal, voluntary, annual event held each Memorial Day at precisely 3:00 pm local time. Its purpose is to allow everyone 60 seconds of silence to remember, honor, and celebrate those brave men and women who died to protect our freedoms.
-—stay curious! (and hug your memories)