"We Should Guard Their Graves with Sacred Vigilance"

by ADRIAN MORGAN, THE EDITOR May 30, 2011
 
The first celebrations of Memorial Day began unofficially in the cemeteries of the south in the years immediately after the end of the Civil War. Here, ceremonies began where the graves of the fallen were decorated. There are several locations which vie for the claim to be the first place where such ceremonies took place. These celebrations, called “Decoration Days” were officially enacted from at least 1866 onwards in various locations, on varying days. In 1865, freed slaves had decorated the graves of 257 Union soldiers at Charleston in South Carolina, the first known example of a Decoration Day.
 
 
James Abram Garfield (1831 - 1881).
 
The first official national Decoration Day took place exactly 143 years ago today in Washington D.C., on May 30, 1868. Here at Arlington Cemetery, as reported in the Evening Star of the same date:
 
The exercises were opened at one o'clock in front of the Arlington Mansion, by W.T. Collins, Esq., who read the general order (G.A.R.) designating the 30th of May as a day to be observed throughout the United States in decorating the graves of the Union dead. Rev. Byron Sunderland then offered an impressive prayer, after which an appropriate hymn was sung. Hon. James A. Garfield was then introduced and delivered the oration, which was very appropriate and listened to with marked attention. The lateness of the hour prevents us from giving Mr. Garfield's address. At its conclusion, a patriotic song was sung by the assemblage and an original poem was read by Hon. J.C. Smith. The services at this point concluded with a solemn dirge by the 44th Infantry band.
 
James Abram Garfield’s speech on that day has a resonance that still has meaning almost a century and a half later. Garfield had been a Major General in the Union Army and had fought in the battles of Shiloh (1862) and Chickamauga (1863). Garfield would go on to become the 20th President of the United States on March 4, 1881, though he would soon be shot , dying (80 days after being hit) on 19 September, 1881.
 
These are the words that James A. Garfield spoke at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1868:
 
I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here, beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung. With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept, plighted faith may be broken, and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke: but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.
 
On the same day, other graves were decorated. The decision to set the date of this 1868 Decoration Day had been made on the order of General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic. On May 5, 1868, he had issued a proclamation (General Orders Number 11) that began:
 
The 30th day of May, 1868, is 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.
 
We are organized, comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, "of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors, and marines who united to suppress the late rebellion." What can aid more to assure this result than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance...
 
Decoration Day was first called Memorial Day in 1882, but it was not until after the end of World War I (1918) that the name gained popularity. On June 28, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill (H.R. 15951), which would come into force on January 1st, 1971. This bill assigned fixed dates for three holidays, including Memorial Day:
 
--Washington's Birthday on the third Monday in February,
--Memorial Day on the last Monday in May,
--Veterans Day on the fourth Monday in October.
 
In Arlington Cemetery in 1865, the graves of fallen soldiers would be decorated with flowers. Nowadays, it is more usual for graves to be decorated with Stars and Stripes flags, while flowers are laid by relatives. One particular flower has a symbolic importance on this day.
 
Poppies
 
 
Memorial Day is held when flowers are in bloom. Poppies are traditionally associated with Memorial Day. The tradition of making and selling paper poppies, reflecting the poppies that grew in Flanders Fields in the First World War (known at the time as The Great War) is 93 years old. American teacher Moina Michael in 1918 had been touched by a poem written by Canadian serviceman Colonel John McCrae. In 1915, struck by the way red poppies (Papaver rhoeas)  bloomed in abundance upon battlefields that had earlier been broken up by shell bursts, McCrae had written a poem that was originally known as “We Shall Not Sleep.” It is now more popularly known by the title “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.
 
 
Moina Belle Michael.
 
In 1917 America joined the Great War in Europe, and soon American serviceman would be buried in Flanders Fields. Moina Belle Michael, who worked as a volunteer in this war with the YMCA, responded with a poem of her own in November 1918:
 
We Shall Keep the Faith
 
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet - to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
 
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
 
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We'll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
 
On November 9th 1918, Moina Michael had the idea to commemorate the fallen with a symbol of the red poppy. She began wearing artificial poppies herself and the concept appealed to others, quickly spreading. The poppy was adopted first by the YMCA Conference of Overseas Secretaries, then in 1919 various local American organizations, particularly in Georgia. On September 29th, 1920 the poppy became the emblem of the National American Legion. Soon, veterans’ organizations in Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had adopted the red poppy as their emblem.
 
Memorial Day 2011
 
Today, there will be ceremonies across the United States to celebrate the fallen, and overseas there will be more remembrance of those who have given their all for their country. Today is also a national holiday, and this weekend has also been a time of celebration. Ideally there should be a balance between the solemnity of remembering those who laid down their lives, and gratitude that through their sacrifice, America remains a free country, and the greatest democracy that the world has ever seen.
 
As well as remembering the fallen, we should also remember the families of the fallen, and also those families who wait patiently, giving their support to loved ones who are still fighting overseas for their country. All who join the military do so knowing full well that they may be asked to make that ultimate sacrifice.
 
So today, let us honor all those who have given up their lives, and also express gratitude to those who have become disabled in battle. Until all wars end, there will always be more good Americans who will be called upon to give up their lives so that those at home can stay free.
 
 

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