From the Office of State Senator Troy Fraser

For Immediate Release
May 24, 2002
Contact: William A. Scott - (512) 463-0124

Let's Remember the Meaning of Memorial Day

By Senator Troy Fraser

With Memorial Day weekend now upon us, families everywhere are marking the start of summer. School's out. Vacationing is in. Traditionally, across America, it all begins this weekend.

But all too often, Memorial Day is looked upon by some as just another three-day weekend. I think it's important to pause and reflect on the true meaning of this national holiday, and how it began.

For anyone who has ever been to Arlington National Cemetery, it's easy to close your eyes and picture the events unfolding along the banks of the Potomac River on May 30, 1868. It was there and then -- 134 years ago, three years after the Civil War ended -- that a crowd of 5,000 people first gathered to decorate the graves of 20,000 soldiers, both Union and Confederate.

"The ceremonies commenced around the mourning-draped veranda of an Arlington mansion, once the home of General Robert E. Lee," according to the Commonwealth of Virginia's website. "General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and other Washington officials presided.

"After speeches, children from the Soldiers and Sailors' Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republic made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, reciting prayers and singing hymns."

They called it Decoration Day.

Prior to the 1868 gathering in Arlington that marked the first national observance of the holiday, various local tributes to the Civil War dead were held. On April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Miss., a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at the battle of Shiloh.

"Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy," according to one account. "Disturbed by the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well."

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y. the official "birthplace"of Memorial Day. There, a century before, Henry C. Welles, the village druggist, mentioned at a social gathering that honor should be shown to those who fought and died in the recently concluded war, by decorating their graves.

By the Spring of 1866, the idea was adopted by the local townspeople, and wreaths, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran's grave. The village was decorated with flags flown at half staff, and draped with evergreen boughs and mourning black streamers. Civic societies joined the procession, led by marching bands, to the three local cemeteries where ceremonies were then conducted to honor the fallen.

By the end of the 19th century, similar ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. Following World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars, and in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday.

Over the years, on Memorial Day, presidents and other public officials across America have led our nation's salute to those who, as Abraham Lincoln said, gave their "last full measure of devotion."

But the words of another great president, Ronald Reagan, best capture our obligations on this special day to the generations of soldiers who fought and died so the rest of us can live in freedom.

"Our first obligation to them and ourselves is plain enough: The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper," Reagan said in his 1982 Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery.

"Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we -- in a less final, less heroic way -- be willing to give of ourselves."

So let's put the "Memorial" back in Memorial Day this year. We can visit cemeteries and place flags and flowers on the graves who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation, or visit a war memorial. We can fly our flags at half-staff until Noon.

But most important, we can renew the pledge made many years ago in Arlington, Virginia, to continue helping the spouses and families of America's fallen heroes.

State Senator Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, represents a 21-county district that includes the Highland Lakes region.