The True Meaning of Memorial Day

Jason Nulton
May 22, 2015 · 8 min read

Jason Nulton is an Air Force veteran and author who has served as a logistics officer. He is currently collaborating with British historian and History Channel commentator Martin King on the novelization of the experiences of Augusta Chiwy, a Congolese-Belgian nurse who saved hundreds of Americans during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Follow Jason on Twitter: @jason_nulton

Most vets appreciate being thanked for their service, but if it happens on Memorial Day, there are many that will tell you to be thankful instead for those that never made it home. Memorial Day, celebrated at the end of May every year, is meant to remember them, our comrades-in-arms, that gave the ultimate sacrifice.

After 20 years in uniform, Memorial Day means more to me (and many veterans like me) than it might to other Americans. I fly my flag high and proud, and choose to remember people like the men of the 26th North Carolina who marched straight into Union canister at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863. Survivors saw their friends literally vaporized in a hail of iron and in some cases, there was nothing left but bloodstained boots and bone. What about men who didn’t survive the Bataan Death March? Listening to stories about the cruel and violent ways in which people died, such as being crushed alive by passing Japanese tanks, are difficult to hear. Vets like Glenn Frazier who was featured in Ken Burns’ “The War,” were there and witnessed it.

I also choose to remember Air Force Capt Dave Lyon. This one hits close to home for me, because Dave was an Air Force Logistics Officer just like me. In December 2013, he was less than six weeks from redeploying when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device struck his convoy as it weaved its way through downtown Kabul. Dave was killed instantly. I didn’t know him personally, but knew of him. He was one of a very small number of officers in a very small community, and we all know the names and reputations of each other to one extent or another. It’s tough to fathom that I could just as easily have been in his shoes. Last year, one of DoD’s war reserve material pre-positioning ships was christened in his honor. On the day of the naming ceremony, Dave’s wife Dana, also an Air Force captain, said, “Dave was a workhorse — this is a work ship. He continues to take the fight to the enemy. It gives me strength every day knowing that he is continuing to serve and protect and take care of us. We can rest at night because Dave’s still protecting us.”

The stories about these men are hard to wrap your mind around. It’s hard to not put yourself into the same place at the same time as them, especially if you’ve worn the uniform. The intense heat, the deafening noises and putrid smells…what unfathomable fear they must have felt, knowing the likelihood of death was so great.

When the Civil War ended in the mid-1860s, many felt similar and were trying to make sense of the whole experience. Most endured similar horrors themselves, only they survived it. This is where Memorial Day has its roots. The whole thing began after the Civil War as “Decoration Day,” and while there is some dispute as to where and when the first actual Memorial Day occurred, placing flowers on the graves of veterans is a well-established tradition that goes back centuries.

An aging Civil War veteran accepts a bouquet of flowers from children in this 1930s poster

Reconstruction was difficult in the South after the war due to the punitive policies of the victorious Federal Government, and there were a lot of hard feelings. Not surprisingly, there was very little actual collaboration between northern and southern states regarding the establishment of anything that looked like a Memorial Day. Yale professor of American History David Blight insists the first celebration was in Charleston, South Carolina and it occurred immediately after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

On May 1st, 1865 nearly 10,000 “freed men” gathered at the Hampton Park Race Course, which was used as a POW detention area by the Confederacy to confine captured northern soldiers. More than 200 died there and were buried in a mass grave. When the war reached its end, these freed men and more than 3,000 children held a memorial on the site that was covered by many northern newspapers, laying flowers on the open field. There were even Union veterans there, including the 54th Massachussetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a unit composed of black soldiers and immortalized in the 1989 film “Glory.” The location today is still remembered as the site of the first “Decoration Day,” even though the remains of the soldiers have since been re-interred elsewhere. African Americans, it seems, may have been the first to hold a “memorial” day. In later years, many other southern states held similar memorial or decoration days, but unlike the event at Charleston in 1865, they honored the Confederacy’s dead.

The officially-recognized “first” Decoration Day was held in Waterloo, New York in 1868. Not to be outdone by the south, President (General) John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a northern Civil War Veterans association, proclaimed “Decoration Day” would be held nationwide on May 30th of that year. Presumably in an attempt to gain southern buy-in, the date was chosen because it didn’t correspond with the anniversary of any battle. It was met with lukewarm enthusiasm in the south. While 27 states marked the date with celebrations and even a few parades, not many southern families or veterans wanted to participate in anything that could be seen as honoring Union soldiers. By the late 1800s, Decoration Day was fairly widely observed, although southern participants and surviving vets often marked it as a day to remember northern “atrocities “and honor the “lost cause.”

By 1880, “Decoration Day” had slowly started giving way to the use of the term “Memorial Day.” Celebrations and memorials remained the same, but the terms were used interchangeably until after World War II.

1935: At the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate and Union veterans shake hands across the stone wall at “the Bloody Angle,” widely regarded as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy.

In 1913, a memorial day of sorts was marked at the battlefields of Gettysburg in July for the 50th anniversary of the war’s most famous and bloodiest battle. For four days, more than 12,000 veterans from both north and south converged on the site in a display of national unity, observing speeches, re-enactments and parades. President Woodrow Wilson, the first southern president elected since the war, stated in his address “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten — except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.”

A similar anniversary was marked in Gettysburg in 1938 for the 75th anniversary of the battle, although attended by far fewer veterans, who like today’s World War II vets, were disappearing fast. Pickett’s Charge was re-enacted with men from both sides famously meeting and shaking hands at “the Bloody Angle,” largely accepted as the high water mark of the Confederacy.

In 1967, “Memorial Day” was declared a federal holiday —a century after the first Decoration Day. Observances today are much like a they were then, as we participate in parades, share good will with our families and friends, and honor those that gave all to provide us the freedom we enjoy. Many veterans today from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the War on Terror use it as a date to somberly remember our buddies who didn’t make it home and ponder their sacrifices. Indeed, for a lot of today’s vets, it may be the most important date we celebrate all year.

This Memorial Day, fly the flag — at half-staff to remember our fallen comrades. At noon, it should be raised to its full height to symbolize that those still living remember the sacrifices of the dead, and resolve to continue to fight for our liberties and freedoms. Take the opportunity to talk to veterans, too, and get their stories about their friends who didn’t make it. Many of our older survivors won’t be around long.

If you pay attention to the news and veterans issues, you know there’s been some discussion in recent days about respect for the flag and what it symbolizes. It’s easy to be a cynic and, and it’s easy to complain, especially from behind a computer screen. But I would offer that Memorial Day should be treated more as an opportunity for vets to educate others how to properly observe and honor military sacrifices in the name of freedom, and talk about what it means to serve.

Take a moment to teach someone. Even better, plant some seeds. Teach a kid.

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Jason Nulton

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The Star Wars Holiday Special is good TV.

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