Friday, May 20, 2011

Themed Reviews: Memorial Day

Honoring those who have given their lives for their country has a long history in every culture. Monuments, poetry, psalms, music, parks, bridges, buildings, and even highways have been created and named to honor the fallen. In the United States the history of a nationally observed Memorial Day has a variety of origins but is generally commemorated on the last Monday in May, having been changed from May 30th by an act of Congress to create a three day week-end. For many the holiday marks the beginning of the summer season and is a time of picnics and outings. There are many others who would like to see the date returned to the 30th to give more solemnity to the observance. The following information gives more background and history for Memorial Day as it has evolved in the U.S.

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860’s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).

Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program).

For more information visit:

Arlington: The Story of Our Nation’s Cemetery
Chris Demarest
Honor echoes in images and words chronicling Arlington National Cemetery’s history. Capturing the essence of America’s iconic burial ground, the nonfiction narrative presents readers essential information from early nineteenth-century construction of Arlington House through interment of twenty-first century Iraq and Afghanistan war casualties. A U.S. Coast Guard artist, Demarest, whose father is buried at Arlington, comprehends military subjects and traditions, effectively portraying scenes from Arlington’s past and present in pastel watercolors which convey sentimental and patriotic tones. His artistic interpretations distinguish this work from other Arlington Cemetery picture books which consist primarily of photographs. Demarest identifies notable veterans and presidents interred at Arlington, describes ceremonies, and discusses monuments memorializing the U.S.S. Maine, military nurses, Challenger astronauts, and 9/11. Paintings of the best-known Arlington landmark, the Tomb of the Unknowns, exemplify rituals expressing respect and dignity. Arlington’s Freedman’s Village, illustrated with an archival photograph is placed adjacent to supplementary material instead of the Civil War section. Concludes with author’s note explaining Demarest’s affinity for Arlington and bibliography. Adults can consult Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (2009) to elaborate about aspects Demarest introduces which intrigue young readers. 2010, Flash Point/Roaring Brook Press, $17.99. Ages 6 to 10. Reviewer: Elizabeth D. Schafer (Children’s Literature).
ISBN: 9781596435179

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