Opinion: Soldier, rest! Thy warfare o’er
Remembering our honored dead
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In May 1865, scarcely more than a year after the last lingering, acrid wisps of smoke had cleared from the Civil War battlefields of Virginia, Americans began the custom of remembering their honored dead.
Various accounts give the honor of the first Memorial Day -- formerly called Decoration Day -- to Waterloo, N.Y., Boalsburg, Pa., Columbus, Miss., or Richmond, Va., but within a few years the custom had caught on. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, proclaimed May 30 as a special day to honor the graves of Union soldiers.
The general designated that day a day "for strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village or hamlet churchyard in the land."
By 1890, all the Northern states observed the holiday; Southern states held out different days to honor Confederate war dead, and many still do. Originally a holiday for remembering the Union dead, the emphasis shifted to honoring the dead from all of America's wars after the terrible conflagration of World War I, where Americans joined their European cousins to attempt to "make the world safe for democracy" and where many gave, to borrow a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, the last full measure of devotion in places like Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, or in Belgium.
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.
Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D., World War I, (Royal Canadian Army)
In 1918, just a couple of days before the Armistice, Col. McCrae's poem inspired Moina Michael, a former teacher at the University of Georgia and a staff member at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries, to wear a silk poppy to honor the men who died in the war. The Veterans of Foreign Wars began selling the "Buddy Poppies" in 1922. That effort continues to this day.
Memorial Day did not become a full-fledged National Holiday until 1971, when Congress passed the National Holiday Act to give three-day weekends to federal employees.
Long weekends aside, Memorial Day remains one of the most hallowed of our holidays. Certainly, it is celebrated with real feeling and a surpassing immediacy at virtually all U.S. military installations, where men and women in uniform pay their respects to their fallen comrades.
And so, we also pay our respects -- to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice -- in Iraq, in Bosnia, in Panama, in Kuwait, and in hundreds of other battlefields stretching back through time.
Soldier, rest! Thy warfare o'er
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking,
Dream of battled fields no more.
Days of danger, nights of waking.
--Sir Walter Scott