Memorial Day tidbits you might not know
Memorial Day is serious business—a time for us to pause and give thanks for those who have died for what they believe in, especially those here in the United States who have fought for the freedoms we enjoy. But I thought you’d enjoy some interesting tidbits about Memorial Day traditions that took me by surprise.
- Honoring the war dead goes back centuries—at least to ancient Greece and Rome. In 431 B.C., Athenian general and statesman Pericles delivered a funeral oration praising those who had given their lives in the Peloponnesian War. It was reportedly part of an annual public funeral for the war dead. It was included in the history of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.
- An early U.S. commemoration of war dead was organized by recently freed slaves. On May 1, 1865, hundreds of freed slaves, along with regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops and a few white Charlestonians, gathered in a former Southern prisoner of war camp which had been a former racetrack near Charleston’s Citadel. The group’s goal was to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union soldiers who had died in the camp from disease or exposure and were buried in a mass grave. The event was dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
- Memorial Day didn’t become a U.S. federal holiday until 1971. Its roots go back to May, 1868, as “Decoration Day,” when General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic, decreed that May 30 should become a day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War.
- While Waterloo, New York, was made the “official birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 when he signed the holiday legislation, several other towns claim to be the holiday’s birthplace, including Boalsburg, PA, Carbondale, IL, Columbus, MS, and Columbus, GA.
- It took several years after President Johnson’s 1966 Memorial Day legislation before the holiday was passed by the U.S. Congress and became officially recognized nationwide.
- Other traditions that have become associated with Memorial Day include Americans pausing for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3pm local time and the running of the Indianapolis 500 race.
My personal heroes
Dad, also known as Grandy, Uncle Jim, or Jim Herbert, served as an Army Air Corps fighter pilot during World War II. He flew 14 combat missions in P-38s and 43 missions in P-51s over Europe and far into Russia, earning the Air Medal with five oak leaf clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He served his country bravely, and I know how proud he was to be an American. Thus one of the earliest lessons I learned from him was this:
America is worth fighting for.
All of my uncles and six of my husband’s uncles served in World War II. I hold them today in my heart with gratitude:
- R. Beverley Herbert, Jr.
- Dr. George Hart
- Dr. Edmund Taylor
- H. Bruce Thomson
- Wesley Cottrell
- Wade Cottrell
- William Cottrell
- Willard Cottrell
- Harold Cottrell
- Fred Arto
And I want to recognize all my Cottonbaler friends of the 7th Infantry Regiment Association who fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Cottonbalers have served in campaigns going back to the War of 1812 and continuing in active duty in today’s wars in the Mideast. For many years, I have been the producer of their quarterly Cottonbaler newsletter, and I’m proud to have been named an honorary member of their association. They are a fine group of Americans.
And of course, there are so many more. Whoever you are, wherever you are, I thank you.
Perhaps there’s someone in your own family or among your friends who has served his or her country. A gesture of gratitude from you—a note, an email, a phone call— might mean more than you can possibly imagine.