To racing enthusiasts around the country, and particularly in Indiana, May 30 means the granddaddy of all auto races, the Indy 500. Everything is different this year, however, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The race has been rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23. So, since there will be no race May 30 we might all want to pause a few minutes to remember what Memorial Day is really about.
Just for the record, it’s the day to honor those who demonstrated great courage, made enormous sacrifices and accomplished outstanding deeds under terrible conditions fighting to defend our country in the various branches of military service in a lot of unpleasant places. They did it to preserve freedom for us and future generations.
Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was first known, originally began as a tribute to those soldiers who died during the Civil War. It’s believed to have been started by Miss Emma Hunter who in 1864 laid flowers at the grave of her father, Col. James Hunter, who commanded the 49th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Battle of Gettysburg.
That day in the cemetery she met a woman whose son had been killed in the Civil War. They decided to meet the following year to decorate the graves again. It wasn’t long before other people in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, took up the idea.
On April 26, 1866, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, went to decorate the graves of their soldiers who had died in the Battle of Shiloh. After placing flowers on the headstones of the Confederate dead, they also placed magnolia blossoms on the graves of 40 Union soldiers buried there. Their impartial act was reported in the New York Herald Tribune and was the subject of a famous poem by Francis Miles Finch entitled “The Blue and the Gray.”
The first reported organized Memorial Day service took place on Belle Isle in the James River at Richmond, Virginia, on May 30, 1866, and included erecting a cross, placing bouquets on each headstone and singing a hymn.
A Union soldier of German origin wrote to the adjutant-general of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union veterans’ organization, describing the German custom of decorating graves of fallen soldiers every spring. The adjutant-general thought it was something the organization should do and issued an order in 1868 making May 30 the official date for this annual practice.
New York made the date a legal holiday in 1873 and soon other states followed suit. Nine states of the former Confederacy observe a Confederate Memorial Day on April 26, chosen because it was the date of the “last ditch” surrender of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Durham Station, South Carolina, and 17 days after Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Some southern states mark it on May 10, May 30 and even June 3.
Memorial Day is observed wherever American soldiers are buried around the world. One of the largest ceremonies, of course, is conducted at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from Washington, D.C.
This Memorial Day, pause a few minutes to remember those who paid the ultimate price in the fight to maintain our freedom.