Where it’s Memorial Day… 365 Days a Year
Posted by Rich Mancini
Posted in: Tauck’s Travelogue
Tags: Travel, USA
With all the parades, barbecues, holiday sales and general hoopla that has come to characterize the Memorial Day weekend as the annual kickoff to the summer season throughout the U.S., it’s become easy to lose sight of the true purpose of the observance, first established a few years after the end of the Civil War… to remember and honor those Americans who have given their lives in the service of their country. So, as Memorial Day 2013 approaches, I wanted to share some thoughts about a very special place whose “hallowed ground” has played a role in the holiday’s observance since the very beginning – and serves to remind us of its true meaning.
The tradition of “Decoration Day” initially sprung up in at least two dozen American communities on both sides of the conflict during and after the Civil War, as citizens decorated the graves of their war dead with flowers. But the first official Memorial Day was proclaimed in 1868 by Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (who chose the end of May because flowers would likely be in full bloom), and first observed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 30, 1868, as members of the GAR and children orphaned by the war recited prayers, sang hymns and placed flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate fallen.
While the former Confederate states honored their dead on separate days until after the holiday was expanded to pay tribute to Americans lost in all wars, following World War I, Memorial Day is now observed throughout the U.S. on the last Monday in May – although the number of traditional observances (and even the number of parades) has steadily decreased over the years. But not at Arlington… still an active military cemetery where American service members, ranging from deceased veterans of earlier wars to recent U.S. military casualties from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as some of their dependents and other notable Americans, are laid to rest every day.
Created during the Civil War as mounting Union casualties began filling up existing U.S. military cemeteries in the Washington, DC area, Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1864 on land first appropriated, and later purchased, by the U.S. government from the Arlington Estate – which had, prior to the war, been home to the family of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The cemetery was officially dedicated as a military facility in 1888 and, fittingly, was also the site of the first national Memorial Day ceremony in 1929, presided over by President Herbert Hoover.
If you visit Arlington in late May today – now close to a century-and-a-half after that first Memorial Day in 1868 – you’ll see small American flags decorating some 260,000 gravestones within the cemetery, freshly planted the Thursday before the holiday by the 1,200 or so troops of the U.S. Third Army – who then patrol the grounds throughout the weekend to make sure those flags stay there.
But no matter what time of year you walk through Arlington’s vast, solemn grounds… past the famous Marine Corps War Memorial, popularly known as the Iwo Jima Monument, just outside the cemetery’s walls… among row after row after row of uniformly sized and shaped headstones, crosses or other markers… to the Tomb of the Unknowns (and its unforgettable changing of the guard)… or to poignant memorials such as those honoring the lost Space Shuttle Challenger astronauts, the crew of the USS Maine or the JFK Eternal Flame… you can’t help but be moved, to feel a mixture of pride and sorrow, to truly understand that here, in this green, quiet place… “this hallowed ground”… every day is Memorial Day.
You’ll tour Arlington National Cemetery and Arlington House (now the memorial to Robert E. Lee) – as well as other hallowed ground including Gettysburg, Antietam and Petersburg national battlefields, the monuments of Washington, DC’s National Mall, and much more on all 2013 departures of Tauck’s Most Hallowed Ground: The Civil War.