What Memorial Day is really about

Somewhere in the middle of all the madness surrounding the Memorial Day holiday, small groups gathered to honor those veterans who died in defense of their country.

Veterans, especially those from the Greatest Generation, get a little heartburn when they see what Memorial Day has become – the start of the summer season. It’s gone so far that some groups actually refuse to have ceremonies on the traditional Monday holiday and hold their services on the real day, which is May 30.

The National Holiday Act of 1971 placed Memorial Day the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend. The VFW and other veterans’ organizations are working to get that law changed, but have had no success to date.

Memorial Day was established following the Civil War in an effort to mend some of the deep wounds of division. It’s now become a time to pause and honor all those who have given their lives for their country.

It was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

Gen. Logan

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states, but southern states refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.

Several southern states have an additional day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Some haven’t forgotten the significance of the day. Since the late 1950s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 Arlington National Cemetery gravestones. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing.

In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a practice that continues to this day.

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