Memorial Day – It’s History and Why We Celebrate It


Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you. Jesus Christ and the American Soldier. One died for your Soul. The other for your Freedom.

                                                                                   General George S. Patton


Memorial Day as we know it was originally called Decoration Day, it is a day we remember those who have died in service to the Nation. There are many theories as to how and when it was started with over two dozen cities and towns claiming to be the birth place of the day. What is known is that southern women organized into groups to decorate graves during and after the Civil War. It would be difficult if not impossible at this time to state definitively exactly where and when the day was first observed. The truth is most likely that it was practiced in many different places and at varying times through the Civil War.


On May 5, 1868 General John Logan who was the National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed that May 30th was officially Memorial Day when he issued General Order 11. It stated that May 30th 1868 would be officially designated the first Memorial Day. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  New York was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1873. The rest of the northern states soon followed but the south refused to recognize the date until after WW1 when all soldiers from all wars would be equally recognized instead of just Civil War soldiers. Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) designating the last Monday in May as the official Holiday. On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye of Hawaii introduced bill (S 189) to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May”. On April 19, 1999 Representative Gibbons introduced the bill to the House (H.R. 1474). The bills were referred the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform.


The significance of that Red Poppy you see every Memorial Day has its roots way back to 1915 when Moina Michael wrote the poem.

We cherish too, the Poppy red That grows on fields where valor led, It seems to signal to the skies That blood of heroes never dies.


She then conceived the idea of wearing a Red Poppy to commemorate those who had died serving the nation during a time of war. The practice of wearing a Red Poppy is still in use today. So when you pull up to that stop light or enter a store and someone is there collecting money and giving a Red Poppy in return for your donation, don’t just throw it into the glove compartment or into a drawer at home. Wear it with pride to honor those who gave their lives so America would stay free. Here is a poem that may help to explain why Memorial Day is such an important day to remember.


Freedom Is Not Free

 By Kelly Strong

 I watched the flag pass by one day. It fluttered in the breeze. A young Marine saluted it, and then he stood at ease. I looked at him in uniform So young, so tall, so proud, He’d stand out in any crowd. I thought how many men like him Had fallen through the years. How many died on foreign soil? How many mothers’ tears? How many pilots’ planes shot down? How many died at sea? How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves? No, freedom isn’t free.

I heard the sound of TAPS one night, When everything was still I listened to the bugler play And felt a sudden chill. I wondered just how many times That TAPS had meant “Amen,” When a flag had draped a coffin Of a brother or a friend. I thought of all the children, Of the mothers and the wives, Of fathers, sons and husbands With interrupted lives. I thought about a graveyard At the bottom of the sea Of unmarked graves in Arlington. No, freedom isn’t free.


Horace Lorenzo Trim, writer of the first lyrics to Taps as follows.

Day is done, gone the sun From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky All is well, safely rest God is nigh. Fading light dims the sight And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright From afar, drawing near Falls the night. Thanks and praise for our days Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky As we go, this we know God is nigh.

Although there are no official words to Taps and there are many different variations, these words seem to be the most popular today.

Day is done, gone the sun, From the hills, from the lake, From the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Go to sleep, peaceful sleep, May the soldier or sailor, God keep. On the land or the deep, Safe in sleep.

Love, good night, Must thou go, When the day, And the night Need thee so? All is well. Speedeth all To their rest.

Fades the light; And afar Goeth day, And the stars Shineth bright, Fare thee well; Day has gone, Night is on.

Thanks and praise, For our days, ‘Neath the sun, Neath the stars, ‘Neath the sky, As we go, This we know, God is nigh.

Of all the military bugle calls, none is so easily recognized or more apt to render emotion than Taps. Up to the Civil War, the traditional call at day’s end was a tune, borrowed from the French, called Lights Out. In July of 1862, in the aftermath of the bloody Seven Days battles, hard on the loss of 600 men and wounded himself, Union General Daniel Adams Butterfield called the brigade bugler to his tent. He thought “Lights Out” was too formal and he wished to honor his men. Oliver Wilcox Norton, the bugler, tells the story, “…showing me some notes on a staff written in pencil on the back of an envelope, (he) asked me to sound them on my bugle. I did this several times, playing the music as written. He changed it somewhat, lengthening some notes and shortening others, but retaining the melody as he first gave it to me. After getting it to his satisfaction, he directed me to sound that call for Taps thereafter in place of the regulation call. The music was beautiful on that still summer night and was heard far beyond the limits of our Brigade. The next day I was visited by several buglers from neighboring Brigades, asking for copies of the music which I gladly furnished. The call was gradually taken up through the Army of the Potomac.”

This more emotive and powerful Taps was soon adopted throughout the military. The first time taps was played at a military funeral may have been in Virginia soon after Butterfield composed it. Union Capt. John Tidball, head of an artillery battery, ordered it played for the burial of a cannoneer killed in action. Not wanting to reveal the battery’s position in the woods to the enemy nearby, Tidball substituted taps for the traditional three rifle volleys fired over the grave. Taps was played at the funeral of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson 10 months after it was composed. In 1874, it was officially recognized by the U.S. Army. It became standard at military funeral ceremonies in 1891. Taps is now played by the military at burial and memorial services and is still used to signal “lights out” at day’s end.

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Your children might ask one day. What is a Veteran? Here is one possible answer you can give them.

A Veteran is someone who at one point in his life, wrote a blank check payable to the “United States of America” for any amount of up to and including his or her life.



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