Memorial Day, a Day of Remembrance
Decades ago in Orange on May 30, business closed and people began to gather along Green Avenue for the annual Memorial Day parade. When the U. S. Naval Station was still in active operation, there would be a contingent of marching sailors, resplendent in white uniforms, led by an officer, and following the flags, with the Stars and Stripes the highest and proudly waving in the wind. Local veterans groups would have a float and the American Legion Auxiliary had their ladies selling the paper poppies for their annual fundraiser. Different groups would have floats, high school bands would march, and the Orange Sheriff’s Posse would be riding their horses in formation.
After the parade, families would gather for a meal, usually some form of barbeque, and after the meal, a lot of napping usually took place.
A group of volunteers would go to the local cemeteries and place flags on the graves of veterans. After all, Memorial Day was the day to remember those who gave their lives in the service of our country. May 30 was a big day in Orange County. It was a major holiday!
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and started after the Civil War in the Southern States to honor those who had died in the war. Graves of the soldiers would be “decorated” with flowers as a remembrance of their sacrifice. Warrenton, Virginia implies that their city was the first by decorating graves on June 3, 1861, Savannah, Georgia followed in 1862. In 1863 the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was dedicated. Ladies in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania organized and decorated graves on July 4, 1864. Boalsburg lays claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Over 600,000 died in the Civil War and the large death toll brought on a new cultural awareness. In 1865 the federal government began to create national cemeteries.
The first publicized Memorial Day observance was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. Union soldiers who had died in a nearby prisoner of war camp were buried at Hampton Park Race Course. The race course was re-landscaped and made into a cemetery. A dedication ceremony was held and attendance was about 10,000 with 3,000 of those being school age children.
In the early 20th Century, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day and the intent was to honor the sacrifice of all who had died in military service. On May 26, 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed a presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
May 30 was chosen as the official date of Memorial Day. The day was chosen because it was not the anniversary date of any battle and because it was felt that was the optimum time for flowers to be in bloom.
Ironton, Ohio claims to hold the longest continuously running Memorial Day parade. The first one was held May 5, 1868 and has been running since that date.
Even though the term was first used in 1882, it was not declared official until 1967 by federal law. Under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 Memorial Day and three other holidays were moved from traditional dates to specified Mondays to create three day weekends. Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May under the law that went into effect in 1971.
There has been opposition to moving the holiday. In a 2002 address at the VFW Memorial Day Observance it was said: “Changing the date merely to create a three day weekend has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt this has contributed to the general public’s casual observance of Memorial Day.”
In 1986 Senator Daniel Inouye, a decorated World War II veteran introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. He continued to introduce the measure annually until his death in 2012.
Even though the number of parades and observances had declined over the years there are still some long running traditions. Probably the most famous is the Indianapolis 500 auto race. It has been held since 1911.
Seldom seen any longer is the proper display of the American Flag on Memorial Day. It was decreed that the flag would be raised briskly to the top of the staff and the lowered to half mast until noon. It would then be raised back to full staff for the remainder of the day. The flag at half staff remembers the more than one million who have died in the service of our country. Raising it back to full staff is a resolution by the living to remember the dead and to continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.