A friend from abroad recently asked me why we celebrate Memorial Day in May. “It’s tough to be somber on a long weekend in May,” he said.
He has a good point. Many of us spend Memorial Day at parties, on weekend vacations, or hosting barbecues; the holiday marks the beginning of the sun and fun of summer. So why do we celebrate Memorial Day in May?
Unlike our Veterans Day in November, which dates back to the armistice that ended the First World War, an occasion many other countries commemorate as Remembrance Day, our Memorial Day grew out of our greatest national calamity, the Civil War. The holiday arose organically, with some two dozen cities claiming to be its site of origin, on different days of the year. But the holiday became permanently associated with May only in 1868, when John Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a fraternal organization for veterans), ordered that May 30 be “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” For many years thereafter the holiday was known as Decoration Day, and even now, many military cemeteries across the country mark the holiday by placing flags on the graves of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.
Another fitting way to mark the holiday — which has of course been moved to the final Monday in May so that we may enjoy three-day weekends — is to spend some quality time with Memorial Day, the latest volume in Amy and Leon Kass’s series of e-books commemorating and exploring the meaning of America’s national holidays with speeches, stories, poems, and songs. It is available online for free in both HTML and easily printable PDF format.
The little book is a treasure, including such gems as Major Sullivan Ballou’s deeply touching letter to his wife just days before he died at the First Battle of Bull Run; war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s recollections of the ways that young soldiers in the Second World War were transformed by the experience of killing; and President Reagan’s 1986 Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, which include a stirring tribute to the service of veterans of the Vietnam War. John McCrae’s classic poem “In Flanders Fields” is also in the book, as are poems and stories from Longfellow, Melville, Alcott, and Henry James. Rutherford B. Hayes’s impromptu remarks upon the unveiling of a soldier’s monument in Dayton, Ohio are a deeply moving, underappreciated piece of American oratory.
Each of the readings in the book is preceded by questions that seek to illuminate its important points, making the e-book especially suitable for classroom use, or for inquiring minds of any age. This is a worthy addition to the other volumes in the Kasses’ series and their larger project to give expression to our civic sentiments and patriotic feelings — and on this special day of the year, to help “us the living” find ways of expressing our gratitude to those who died serving our country.
— Adam Keiper is editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.