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Do you know the history of Memorial Day?

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OKLAHOMA CITY – Most people think of Memorial Day as the unoffical kickoff to summer.  We invite family and friends over, wear our patriotic colors and cookout. But we need to also remember the soldiers who died while serving the United States of America.

Civil War historians Joan Waugh and Gary W. Gallagher remind us that “following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War, more than 600,000, meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape.”

One of the first large scale observance was held in May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.  Teachers, missionaries and freedman organized the ceremony to honor the 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in unmarked graves after being prisoners of war at Hampton Park Race Course.  There were about 10,000 people in attendance.  This even became known as the First Decoration Day.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day in the North after the Civil War in 1869.  It was established by the Grand Army of the Republic to set aside time to decorate soldier’s graves with flowers. Since this was originally a Union holiday and there were competing Confederate holidays and traditions the holidays were merged into the current Memorial Day to honor all Americans who dies in military service.

In the South, Confederate Memorial Day was established in large part by the Ladies Memorial Association.  The observances took place during April 25th to June 15th throughout the Southern states. Out of this custom grew the United Daughters of the Confederacy and many other associations to permanently care for Confederate cemeteries and to organize commemorative events.

Memorial Day was made a federal holiday in 1968 as part of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.  The act moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend. 

In 2002, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day.  No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

Common practices today include decorating soldier’s graves, flying American flags and other patriotic décor.  Many Americans sport patriotic clothing and attend Memorial Day events. Poppies have also been a symbol of Memorial Day since 1915 when Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” following the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Marie Mentesana

Marie Mentesana is a second-generation American of Sicilian descent who started out as a...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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