Next Monday, May 30, marks the annual observance of Memorial Day in America. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans recently had New Orleans–based Market Dynamics Research Group poll over 1,000 men and women about their familiarity with Memorial Day.
A media release from the museum says that 20% of those polled believed they knew “a lot,” 46% knew “something,” 31% knew “little,” and 3% said they knew “nothing” about Memorial Day.
For readers from outside America and for Americans who may fall into the 80% who know “something,” “little” or “nothing” about this annual observance, Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a time to place flowers on the graves of Union soldiers who fell in the Civil War. Several communities claim to have been the first to institute the practice (the U.S. Congress in 1966 officially bestowed that honor upon Waterloo, New York), but former Union general John A. “Blackjack” Logan of Illinois first called for setting aside May 30 in 1868 as a national day to honor Union dead. According to tradition, that date was chosen because in France May 30 was celebrated as the Day of Ashes, honoring the return of Napoleon’s remains from St. Helena.
That date wasn’t strictly observed everywhere. In 1878, the Virginia Free Press reported that Charlestown, in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia—where opinions on the war were very divided—moved its celebration to May 25 in order to coincide with the anniversary of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s 1862 victory over Nathaniel Banks at nearby Winchester. That wasn’t exactly what Blackjack Logan had envisioned.
In 1882 the name America’s holiday was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. It eventually became a day to remember the fallen from all of America’s wars. In 1971, Congress changed the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May in order to insure a three-day weekend.
To combat the limited knowledge of the holiday among today’s Americans, the National WWII Museum created a special Website, www.mymemorialday.org, offering 10 suggestions for ways to observe the day, ranging from placing an American flag on a veteran’s grave to writing a thank-you letter to a veteran. On May 30, the museum will host a series of events featuring World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan War veterans and young Americans.
Elsewhere, on May 29, 8:00–9:30 p.m. ET (check local lisitings), PBS will broadcast live The National Memorial Day Concert from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. For the sixth year, the concert will co-hosted by Emmy Award-winner Gary Sinise (CSI:New York) and Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna (Criminal Minds), two acclaimed actors who and supporting our troops in active service.
You can also share a memory or leave a tribute to fallen loved ones at the PBS National Memorial Day Concert Website by clicking here.
The following day, May 30, The National Memorial Day Parade will march through Washington, D.C., again. Hosted by the American Veterans Center, a non-profit educational foundation based in Arlington, Virginia, that is dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of America’s veterans and active duty service members. This parade is in its sixth year since being revived in 2005 after an absence of more than 70 years. The parade will air live, 2–4 p.m. ET, on the Military Channel. Click here to read a short interview with AVC’s executive director, Tim Holbert, about how the parade came to be revived as an annual event.
World History Group is proud to be a partner with American Veterans Center and appreciate its efforts in honoring and recognizing the brave men and women of the U.S. Armed Services.
At 9:00 p.m. on May 30, HBO will re-air Taking Chance, the moving true story of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (played by Kevin Bacon) escorting the body of a Marine, PFC Chance Phelps (posthumously promoted to lance corporal), back to his hometown from the Iraq War. At the conclusion of the program, HBO will air a list of names provided by the Department of Defense of all those who have died while serving in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn (Battle for Fallujah, Iraq).
Enjoy the Memorial Day holiday—and remember those it honors.