“Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Gen. John A. Logan, 1868
Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it was formerly known) is the day when our country remembers all those who have sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The origins of this patriotic observance are shrouded in mystery, with many states and towns claiming to be the first to honor their war heroes. Even Michigan has its claim, giving credit to Ella and Josephine May of Kalamazoo. During the Civil War, their father, Franklin, was the chaplain of the 2nd Michigan Infantry.
According to the story, the May family was with the 2nd Michigan near Arlington, VA in 1862. On 13 April (the one year anniversary of the beginning of the war) the girls were picking flowers when they came upon the graves of union and confederate soldiers killed in a recent battle. They honored the men who had died by leaving the flowers on the graves. In the following years they repeated the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves. Other people soon joined in the custom, thus laying the foundation of the national observance.
In fact, the custom of decorating graves is much older than the American Civil War. The earliest recorded mention of this custom is from the 5th century BC when Pericles, king of Athens, honored his men who had died in the Peloponnesian War. Other ancient societies, including Greece, Rome and Egypt, had similar practices. These customs spread as the world expanded and continue to the present day.
The first nationwide observance in the United States took place in 1868. In May of that year, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the veteran organization, Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order calling for a national day of remembrance. He chose the 30th day of May as the date and enjoined all GAR posts to “in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” Posts throughout the country, including those in Monroe County, MI, took pride in their ceremonies. Within a decade, most states had passed laws calling for the observance of Decoration Day. Michigan enacted its law declaring 30 May as a holiday on 29 April 1875 P.A. 163). It was not until 1971, however, that the U.S. Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday (P.L. 90-363).
Monroe County has observed Memorial Day since Gen. Logan’s call in 1868. The years have seen many changes in the way we remember our fallen and wars have added many names to the list of heroes. We continue to decorate the graves with flowers and flags; we continue to have parades and music and patriotic speeches; we continue to remember. In the words of Lieutenant Colonel George Spaulding (Monroe Commercial, 27 May 1869), “A cordial invitation is extended to all to join us in this beautiful tribute to the memory of those fallen braves who laid down their lives in our defence (sic).”