The importance is demonstrated by the name — Memorial Day, which takes its place as a solemn occasion amid a panorama of celebratory holidays. While commemorations such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving Day have names that are reflective of their upbeat nature, Memorial Day is a time of remembrance. A time of honoring those who have sacrificed in defense of the United States. A time of recognizing that freedom isn’t free; it comes with a ghastly cost.
The genesis of Memorial Day was forged in the years after the Civil War, which still stands as this nation’s bloodiest conflict. Beginning in 1866, residents of Waterloo, N.Y., observed a day of remembrance, with businesses closing and the townsfolk decorating the graves of soldiers. Other cities across the country have laid claim over the years to being the birthplace of Memorial Day, but in 1966, Congress declared Waterloo to be the originator of the observance.
In 1868, Gen. John Alexander Logan officially proclaimed May 30 as Memorial Day in honor of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, and many Southern states observed memorials for Confederate soldiers until after World War I. But in spite of the frequent and widespread acknowledgement of the nation’s war dead, Memorial Day was not a national holiday until 1971, when Congress declared that it was to be celebrated the last Monday in May each year.
The fact that official recognition did not come until the 1970s is rather remarkable, as the Civil War claimed approximately 625,000 soldiers — an estimated 365,000 on the Union side and another 260,000 for the Confederates, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Military History.” Considering that the population of the United States in 1860 was about 31.4 million, the death toll of the Civil War was staggering. The cost was high, yet the reward was invaluable as the nation was preserved. In World War I, a total of 116,516 Americans were killed, and World War II brought the death of 405,399 military members — yet the world was saved from a particularly gruesome roster of despots and dictators.
Americans later fought bravely in Korea and Vietnam, and continue to do so today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Because their country told them they were needed, and they are men and women who answer the call of duty.
That is what we honor today in a commemoration far different from Veterans Day, which recognizes the efforts of all who have served in the United States military. Memorial Day is to remember those who died, and regardless of how one feels about war, the 1 million or so Americans who have died in service of their country will not have died in vain so long as the United States remains “a magnet for all who must have freedom,” as Ronald Reagan said. Or, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Those who won our independence believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” That is an ethos that has permeated the American psyche for centuries.
So, as we gather today for barbecues or baseball games, for beer and hot dogs, we also note that in 2000 President Bill Clinton signed the “National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which declared 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day each year to be a specific moment of reflection. That is the least we can do for those who have given so much.