Southern women scattered spring flowers on graves of both northern Union and southern Confederate soldiers of the Civil War in which over a half-million died. Many places claimed to have held the original Memorial Day, such as:
- Warrenton, Virginia
- Columbus, Georgia
- Savannah, Georgia
- Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
- Boalsburg, Pennsylvania
- Waterloo, New York
One such place was Charleston, South Carolina, where a mass grave was uncovered of 257 Union soldiers who had died in a prison camp. On May 1, 1865, former slaves organized a parade, led by 2,800 singing black children, and reburied the soldiers with honor in gratitude for their freedom.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, commander of the Civil War veterans’ organization “the Grand Army of the Republic,” called for a Decoration Day to be observed annually on May 30. President James Garfield’s only executive order was in 1881 where he gave government workers May 30 off so they could decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War.
During World War I, a Canadian Expeditionary gunner and medical officer, John McCrae, fought in the Second Battle of Ypres near Flanders, Belgium. Describing the battle as a “nightmare,” as the enemy made one of the first chlorine gas attacks, John McCrae wrote: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
Finding one of his friends killed, John McCrae helped bury him along with the other dead in a field. Noticing the field covered with poppy flowers, he composed the famous Memorial Day poem, “In 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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
After World War I, in 1921, President Warren Harding had the remains of an unknown soldier killed in France buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Inscribed on the Tomb is the phrase: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Since 1921, it has been the tradition for presidents to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The number 21 being the highest salute, the sentry takes 21 steps, faces the tomb for 21 seconds, turns and pauses 21 seconds, then retraces his steps.
Memorial Day grew to honor all who gave their lives defending America’s freedom, including soldiers from:
- The Spanish-American War
- World War I
- World War II
- Korean War
- Vietnam War
- Desert Storm
- War against Islamic Terror, and up to current conflicts
In 1968, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May.
At the Memorial Day ceremony, May 31, 1993, President Bill Clinton remarked: “The inscription on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier says that he is ‘Known only to God.’ But that is only partly true. While the soldier’s name is known only to God, we know a lot about him. We know he served his country, honored his community, and died for the cause of freedom. And we know that no higher praise can be assigned to any human being than those simple words. … In the presence of those buried all around us, we ask the support of all Americans in the aid and blessing of God Almighty.”
In 1958, President Eisenhower placed soldiers in the tomb from WWII and the Korean War.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan placed a soldier from the Vietnam War in the tomb. DNA test later identified him as pilot Michael Blassie, a graduate of St. Louis University High School, 1966 and the U.S. Air Force Academy, 1970, whose A-37B Dragonfly was shot down near An Loc, South Vietnam. In 1998, Michael Blassie was reburied at Jefferson Memorial Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
In his 1923 Memorial Address, President Calvin Coolidge stated: “There can be no peace with the forces of evil. Peace comes only through the establishment of the supremacy of the forces of good. That way lies through sacrifice. … ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'”
Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army, wrote the poem:
It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.
In his Memorial Day address, May 31, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge said: “Settlers came here from mixed motives. … Generally defined, they were seeking a broader freedom. They were intent upon establishing a Christian commonwealth in accordance to the principle of self-government. … It has been said that God sifted the nations that He might send choice grain into the wilderness…”
Calvin Coolidge continued: “They had a genius for organized society on the foundations of piety, righteousness, liberty, and obedience of the law. … Who can fail to see in it the hand of destiny? Who can doubt that it has been guided by a Divine Providence?”
An anti-slavery politician during the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward. The same night Lincoln was shot, an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth broke into Seward’s home and wounded him in an attempted assassination. Born May 16, 1801, William Henry Seward had been governor of the state of New York, 1839-43; and U.S. Senator 1849-61. Seward was Secretary of State during the War between the States, 1861-65, and during reconstruction under President Andrew Johnson, 1865-69.
William Henry Seward stated: “I do not believe human society, including not merely a few persons in any state, but whole masses of men, ever have attained, or ever can attain, a high state of intelligence, virtue, security, liberty, or happiness without the Holy Scriptures; even the whole hope of human progress is suspended on the ever-growing influence of the Bible.”
Seward stated in his oration, “The Destiny of America”: “Shall we look to the sacred desk? Yes, indeed; for it is of Divine institution, and is approved by human experience. The ministers of Christ, inculcating Divine morals, under Divine authority, with Divine sanction, and sustained and aided by special cooperating influences of the Divine Spirit, are now carrying further and broadly onward the great work of the renewal of the civilization of the world, and its emancipation from superstition and despotism.”
William Henry Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, which would not have happened had it not been for the Crimean War near the Black Sea.
The Crimean War was memorialized in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” when a mistaken command sent British cavalry riding directly into Russian cannons.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
‘Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred. …
After over a half-million deaths, the Crimean War ended with the British alliance defeating the Russians in 1856.
Many wounded were cared for by Florence Nightingale, pioneer of the nursing profession. She was known as “The Lady with the Lamp” for making her rounds at night to check on the soldiers.
After losing the Crimea, Russia feared Britain would try to expand their North American territory of British Columbia into Alaska. Rather than let Britain get Alaska, Russia sold 586,412 square miles to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million – about two cents per acre. Alaska was the second largest land purchase in history – the largest being the Louisiana Purchase of 828,000 square miles in 1803, and the third being the Mexican Cession of 520,000 square miles in 1848.
Alaska was thought to be of no value so the purchase was called Seward’s Folly since Secretary of State William Seward had negotiated the treaty. Only after Alaska was discovered to be rich in natural resources was appreciation shown to William Seward.
William Seward served as vice president of the American Bible Society, stating in 1836: “I know not how long a republican government can flourish among a great people who have not the Bible; the experiment has never been tried; but this I do know: that the existing government of this country never could have had existence but for the Bible. And, further, I do, in my conscience, believe that if at every decade of years a copy of the Bible could be found in every family in the land its republican institutions would be perpetuated.”
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