When I was a youngster, I lived for a time in the rustic lake country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where my mother’s family had deep roots dating back to the middle of the 19th century.
Of all the relatives who took on the thankless challenge of trying to mold my character, my favorite was my Great Aunt Libby. Her father — my great-grandfather — had fought in the Civil War and was almost killed on the field of battle. The severe head wound he sustained left him blind for the rest of his life.
When he came home from the war he proceeded to sire eight children, the last of whom was Aunt Libby who, by the time I came to know her, was a regal, white-haired lady in her mid-70s. I’m providing this context as a kind of prelude to a story my great aunt always liked to relate at this time of year.
One of her most vivid memories was of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as she usually called it. On that day, year in and year out, her father and other members of the family would put on their mourning clothes and journey by horse and buggy to the only Union cemetery in that remote part of the Midwest.
There they would assemble with other veterans from her father’s old Civil War unit accompanied by their families and lay wreaths and other tokens of respect at the gravesites of their fallen comrades-in-arms.
The first time Aunt Libby took part in that somber ritual she was a young girl, no more than 7 or 8 years old, and it was her first experience at seeing grown men weep. In particular, seeing tears streaming from her father’s sightless eyes made such a searing impression on her that nearly 70 years later, she still spoke of it with strong, palpable emotion. Needless to say, her intense recollection of that scene made an enduring impression on me.
But the larger point I want to stress is that this was how Memorial Day was observed in scores of American communities during the waning decades of the 19th century when the Civil War was still a recent and tragic memory. As a matter of fact, the holiday came into existence just three years after that conflict ended.
On May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11, officially proclaiming May 30th as a special day to mourn the loss of loved ones who had died in the Civil War. Logan chose to call it “Decoration Day” because he wanted to encourage mourners to adorn the graves of slain warriors with flowers and wreaths.
As for the date, May 30, it had no historical significance. No famous battle was fought on that day. In fact, there may have been a floral connection. According to some historians, May 30 was picked because it was deemed to be the optimum date for flowers to be in bloom.
For years the states of the former Confederacy refused to acknowledge the Northern holiday, preferring instead to honor their dead on other dates. But as time passed, May 30 gradually evolved into a truly national day of observance and eventually came to be known throughout the country by another name — Memorial Day.
As we moved on through the 20th Century, the Memorial Day honor roll was expanded to include Americans who were killed in later wars. Nor was that the only change that occurred.
For more than a century, May 30 was a firmly fixed date on our holiday calendar. In that regard, Memorial Day had a status comparable to that of Christmas and the Fourth of July. But in 1968, Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holidays Act,” which, among other changes, moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May in order to create a “convenient three-day weekend.”
The leaders of veterans’ organizations opposed the switch and continued to rail against it for years after it became the law of the land. In a 2002 statement, the VFW formally asserted that “changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the real meaning of the day and no doubt has contributed to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”
The critics have a point. There’s ample evidence that in their “nonchalant” response to the holiday, many Americans have lost sight of its original purpose. For them, the three-day weekend in May has come to mean little more than the start of another summer season, a time for ball games and picnics and other frolics.
But fortunately, there are some communities, where “the real meaning” of Memorial Day is still alive and well, and one of them, I’m happy to say, is Shelter Island.
Thanks to the strong commitment and organizational skills of American Legion Mitchell Post 281 and other civic groups, the holiday event here strikes an admirable balance between celebration and solemnity.
From the rousing parade that starts at the Center firehouse to the 21-gun salute to the plaintive playing of taps and on through the patriotic blessings and speeches, the main focus of the observance is to pay tribute to those who were killed in one war or another.
To strengthen that focus, the Legion came up with a new wrinkle a few years ago: the somber recitation of the names of the 18 Islanders who died in combat, dating back to the Civil War.
For me, one of the prime pleasures of Memorial Day on the Island is the presence of so many youngsters at the event. I’m well aware, of course, that many of them are there for the free hot dogs and other treats that are passed out after the ceremonies.
But I would like to believe that in the process of getting to those goodies, some of the kids learn a thing or two they didn’t know before about our military history and the sacrifice of warriors who lost their lives to keep us free.
I know my Great Aunt Libby would be pleased to hear that.