Memorial Day: A Day for Remembrance
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
So began the order of John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, instituting the custom of Decoration Day. This occasion became what we know as Memorial Day, now observed on the final Monday of each May.
Logan had been a Union general during the War Between the States, and the Grand Army of the Republic was a Union veterans’ organization. But by the time he issued the order only three years after the war had ended, the country had already come together to honor the fallen from each side. In fact, one of the earliest such observances took place in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1866. Ladies placing flowers on the graves of Confederate soldiers made sure the nearby graves of Union soldiers were decorated, too.
Decoration Day became Memorial Day, and what started as a day specifically connected to the War Between the States became a day to honor the dead of all America’s wars. From the fallen of Lexington to Fallujah, we thank the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 651,031 American battle deaths from the beginning of the American Revolution to the end of Operation Desert Storm, as well as 308,800 other deaths in combat theaters and 230,254 deaths in service but not in theater. Such totals do not count the more recent military engagements fighting al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups, which are ongoing. Service members are putting their lives on the line at this moment.
Each of those numbers has a story behind it.
You may have seen in the news this past year stories about the famous shipwrecks of World War II that were discovered on expeditions led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. One of these discoveries was the USS Juneau, a cruiser most famous for the five brothers who were lost with her, the Sullivans.
The Sullivans grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, and wanted to serve together on the same ship. They were assigned to the Juneau. When the ship, already heavily damaged during the Battle of Guadalcanal, was struck by a torpedo fired by a Japanese submarine, she broke in two and quickly sank. Some of the brothers were lost in the sinking, and the others died before the few survivors of the Juneau were picked up days later.
The story of the Sullivans reminds us of the price of freedom. Five young men, all the sons in the family, dying far from home, is a tragedy. But as President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to their parents: “We who remain to carry on the fight must maintain spirit, in the knowledge that such sacrifice is not in vain.”
He was right. The cost paid by the Sullivans and other Gold Star families was steep, but it helped to defeat the Axis powers and free millions from fascist domination. The fact that we live in freedom today is a tribute to their valor.
The Juneau now is a gravesite at the bottom of a faraway sea, but there are graves closer to home we can decorate, families in our neighborhoods we can comfort, and veterans in our communities we can honor. We can do these things every day, but we should take special care to do them on Memorial Day.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.