Why do we honor Memorial Day?

Andersonville National Cemetery photo from the National Parks Service

A volunteer decorating the war graves at Andersonville National Cemetery. Image from the National Parks Service.

In the United States, the final weekend in May is a special time that marks the arrival of the summer season. Americans will light up their grills and barbecues as they prepare a feast of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other backyard favorites. Every year, tourist towns will get their first wave of summer vacation visitors at this time. The famed Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 are traditionally held this weekend. The reason for all of this partying, vacationing, and summer fun is that this is the first three-day weekend in the nice, sunny weather of late spring as the summer solstice approaches. It’s a three-day weekend thanks to Memorial Day, a federal holiday that is always held on the last Monday of May.

For all these celebrations, however, Memorial Day is meant to be a solemn time to honor those Americans who were killed in action during wartime. On Memorial Day, flags are supposed to be flown at half-staff until noon as a symbol of mourning, and Americans are asked to have a moment of silence and remembrance at 3 p.m. At national cemeteries, the graves of fallen soldiers are decorated with flags in honor of the sacrifices made by those buried there.

The idea of honoring war dead with a special, solemn day of mourning seems like a natural, human one to have. Ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans were known to have held special days of remembrance for their war dead. The Netherlands, Germany, Israel, and South Korea have similar holidays on their calendars for honoring their war dead. Australia and New Zealand hold ANZAC Day in honor of their fallen soldiers from the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I to the present. Speaking of World War I, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in that conflict is celebrated around the world.

The American version has its origins in the aftermath of our Civil War. This traumatic conflict shook the nation to its core, and so it makes sense that people in many parts of the country would spontaneously hold ceremonies to honor their fallen. One of the earliest of these was held in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865, before the war had technically ended. On that day, a crowd of former slaves that had just been freed, accompanied by a unit of African-American Union soldiers, gathered at a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp to honor those Union troops that had died in enemy custody. Another early tribute was held on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi by women who decided to decorate the graves of soldiers that had died in the Battle of Shiloh.

That spring of 1866 saw numerous similar ceremonies held in cities and towns in both north and south, many of whom claim to be the “original” home of Memorial Day. Personally, I think that the desire to honor locals and relatives that had been killed in battle by their loved ones was so universal and powerful that nobody could truly claim to have originated the idea. Yet, in 1966 Congress passed a law declaring the ceremony held in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866 to be the first. I imagine that didn’t go over well in the other claimant towns.

Regardless, in 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, a Union commander who was now serving in Congress and head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ organization, declared May 30 to be “Decoration Day”, a day where the G.A.R. and its affiliated organizations would hold ceremonies to decorate the graves and honor the sacrifices of those who died in the conflict. The date was chosen specifically to avoid being in reference to any particular battle during the war, thus making it feel more inclusive of all soldiers. The holiday became popular throughout the north, with most northern states making it an official state holiday by 1890.

In the south, however, hard feelings caused many to reject this Union holiday, and southern states insisted on holding their own Confederate Memorial Day, which varied from state to state but was usually in April, and was NEVER on May 30. Many southerners even claimed that the northern holiday was actually a blatant rip-off of theirs. To this day, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all still honor Confederate soldiers on this day, a fact that is rather controversial in those states.

Then, in 1917, the United States entered World War I. More than 4.7 million Americans served during that war and 116,516 of those died. It was after this conflict that the idea arose to use Decoration Day to not only honor those that died during the Civil War, but those that died in the Great War as well. After World War II, Memorial Day, as it had come to be known by that point, honored all Americans who died in any war. This helped to make the holiday popular nationwide, rather than just in the Union states.

Even so, the day wasn’t officially made a federal holiday until 1971. By then, its date had been moved to accommodate the Uniform Monday Holidays Act, a law that was meant to minimize disruptions to businesses, government agencies, and schools by having most federal holidays always fall on Mondays rather than a specific date. Thus, it was reasoned, there would be fewer awkward days off in the middle of the week, and in their place, the three-day weekend was created. So, rather than declaring May 30 to be Memorial Day, the federal law names “the last Monday in May” as the day that the federal holiday falls.

Today, there are many military and ceremonial traditions associated with Memorial Day and its role as a day to honor our nation’s greatest heroes. In addition to flying the flag at half-staff and having a moment of silence, some will wear red poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died. Many communities will hold a Memorial Day Parade to celebrate the freedoms that they won for Americans. And, of course, there is the tradition that started it all: decorating war graves.

Memorial Day is far more than just a day off from work and school and an excuse to party. It is an important day that should be respected, as a day to pay respects to those who died so we can enjoy the freedoms we often take for granted. Hopefully, we will all remember that this year, and every year.

Memorial Day image by Karen Arnold

Awesome People in History: Henri Dunant

One of the main reasons I came up with the “Awesome People in History” series was to highlight those individuals that aren’t well-known yet made significant contributions in shaping the world we live in today. Thus, when I recently learned the story of Swiss entrepreneur Henri Dunant, I quickly realized that he would be perfect for this series, and you will soon understand why recent events going on around the world inspired me to tell his story now.

Dunant was born into a wealthy family; his father was a very successful businessman in Geneva, Switzerland who saw to it that young Henri would be apprenticed as a banker. His family were very religious, and raised Henri with the belief that God commanded him to put the wealth he had inherited to good use helping those who were less well-off. Both of his parents donated their time and money helping people in poverty, orphans, recently-paroled criminals seeking to turn their lives around, and those suffering from illness. Young Henri followed his parents’ example, starting a club in college called the “Thursday Association” that helped the poor in their community.

Dunant worked as a banker for several years, but in 1853 he took advantage of an opportunity to join a new business venture that sought to take advantage of the recent French conquest of Algeria for profit. He traveled extensively through North Africa on behalf of this new trading company, and wrote a book about his experiences. He eventually started his own Algerian business venture, a wheat milling business. He had the land he needed to grow the crops and build the mills, but there was one problem. Much of North Africa is, well, desert.

Pictured: Algeria

So, he needed water rights in order to get his operation moving. Can’t grow wheat without water! Dunant had difficulty securing those water rights, though, so he decided to take his case right to the very top – to Emperor Napoleon III of France himself!

Now, at the time, the French emperor was trying to emulate his more famous namesake uncle with some military campaigns of his own, specifically fighting a war in northern Italy against Austria. To meet with the Emperor, Dunant had to go where the French army was marching. In this case, that meant the Italian town of Solferino.

The businessman who was just there to discuss water rights for his farms arrived in June 1859 to witness a bloody, brutal battle between massive armies of hundreds of thousands of men. When the cannons and the guns finally fell silent, 6,000 had died and 40,000 were wounded. What truly horrified Dunant, though, was that the wounded were just left on the battlefield where they fell, bleeding, dying, and crying for help, with nobody coming to aid them. The French army had a handful of medics to treat their wounded, but they were overwhelmed. There weren’t enough medics or medical supplies to treat everyone.

Dunant couldn’t take it. He went through the town, asking for volunteers to help him care for the wounded. Since he was rich, he just up and bought all the medical supplies he could get his hands on. Dunant insisted on treating the wounded from both sides, encouraging the locals to do the same. Dunant wrote a second book detailing this horrifying experience. That was only the beginning for him, however.

The Battle of Solferino inspired Dunant to begin campaigning for the creation of an international, neutral, humanitarian organization that would care for those wounded in battle. He knew, though, that for such an organization to function in wartime, countries around the world would have to agree to permit its volunteers onto the battlefield, and further agree not to shoot those medics caring for the enemy’s wounded. This was a huge ask of national governments that would not be inclined to agree to such a scheme. Luckily, Dunant’s wealth and influence once again came to the rescue.

In 1863, diplomats from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland gathered in Geneva and signed the first of the Geneva Conventions, agreeing to recognize the International Committee of the Red Cross. This was the beginning of the modern Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, working around the world to provide aid not just to war casualties, but also to victims of natural disasters as well. Today, there are Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations in countries around the world, including the American Red Cross here in the United States. All because of the right man being at the right place at the right time to get the right inspiration to make such a humanitarian effort possible.

Ironically, though, Dunant would soon be forced out of the very organization he founded. See, in 1867, his business in Algeria failed and he went bankrupt. This caused a large scandal, and he resigned from the ICRC that year. He moved to Paris, where he was now living in abject poverty, homeless and sleeping in public parks. Luckily for him, Empress EugĂ©nie, Napoleon III’s wife, learned of his plight and helped support him, asking him to help negotiate a naval version of the Geneva Convention. By the time the Franco-Prussian War was fought in 1870-71, Dunant was back on the battlefield, tending to the wounded once again. In 1874, he attended the negotiations that led to the Brussels Declaration that set a series of internationally-agreed rules for military occupation of territory seized in war and the treatment of prisoners of war.

This was to be the last time Dunant was able to use what influence he had left to fulfill his vision for a better world. He soon fell back into poverty, wandering the countryside and growing increasingly ill. In 1887, he moved into a hospice in the Swiss village of Heiden. It was here that he gave an interview in 1895 with a news reporter, whose article shot Dunant back into the spotlight. Soon, he was a celebrity, honored by numerous organizations that awarded him prizes, including the 1901 Nobel Peace Prize. At last, he was able to see his life’s work recognized around the world for the last few years of his life. He passed away in the hospice in 1910.

Sometimes it boggles my mind which historical figures we remember and which ones get left out of the history books. Dunant was clearly a very important figure in shaping the world we live in today: a world where we have formal laws of war and punishments for war criminals, where an internationally-recognized humanitarian organization carries out its mission to help the wounded and sick around the world every day, and where a red cross on a white background is the universal symbol of emergency medical aid. I feel he deserves recognition for his truly remarkable achievements.

All the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and other health care workers who have been working to combat the current global pandemic also deserve recognition for the challenges they have been facing. This post is dedicated to them and their efforts.