Memorial Day: A day to honor those who gave all

Published 5:00 pm Friday, May 26, 2023

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We are now in the midst of Memorial Day Weekend, considered by most Americans to be the long weekend marking the beginning of summer vacation.

The uniquely American holiday is observed on the last Monday of May in memory of the men and women who died while serving in the United States military.

It is often confused with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember and honor all those military veterans who paid the ultimate price while serving their country. It is a somber day to reflect upon the lives cut short, and to remember those to whom so much is owed.

Veterans Day is a day to celebrate the service of all who have served in our country’s military. We celebrate Veterans Day each November with patriotic music and fireworks, and honor those still on active duty.

The Memorial Day holiday originated in the years following the Civil War and was known as “Decoration Day.” The American Civil War (1861-1865) claimed the lives of 620,000 Americans, more than any conflict in U.S. history.

Historians point to conflicting records for the first “Decoration Day.” A group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, organized a commemoration less than a month after the Confederate States of America surrendered in 1865. But Waterloo, New York, gets formal credit for the genesis of Memorial Day: On May 5, 1866, the community hosted an event in which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, who served in the Union Army, called for a nationwide day of remembrance, calling it “Decoration Day.” It is said that he chose May 30th of that year because it did not represent an anniversary of any particular battle.

On that first Decoration Day, Gen. James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. Garfield, of course, went on to become the 20the president of the United States. Many Northern states held similar events.

Southern states honored the war dead on separate days until after World War I. The holiday evolved to commemorate members of the American military who died in all wars.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. The change went into effect in 1971.

Today, communities and veterans groups continue to mark the Memorial Day holiday with somber observances and the decoration of cemeteries or the display of flags.

Often, red poppies are offered by members of the American Legion Auxiliary and worn on the lapel. The tradition began after Canadian brigade surgeon, Lt. Col. John McRae who served in World War I, penned the poem, “In Flanders Field,” in which he channeled the voice of the fallen soldiers buried beneath the red poppies in Flanders, 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.
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.”

In Andalusia, the tribute banners of fallen soldiers are on display on the Court Square, and very early Monday morning, city employees and church volunteers will display hundreds of American flags in our community.

The annual Memorial Day Ceremony organized by the City of Andalusia is planned for 10 a.m. on Monday, May 30, at the Covington County Veterans Memorial behind City Hall. The brief program will include the National Anthem, remarks by the Rev. Eric Mancil, and the playing of the sweet, sad notes of “Taps.” Wreaths will be placed at the marker in memory of all who died for the freedoms Americans enjoy.

We hope that you will join us as we pause to reflect on the contributions of all of those Americans who gave their lives that we might live in peace.

— Michele Gerlach is the communications director for the City of Andalusia and serves as secretary for the Covington Veterans Foundation. She can be reached at