Memorial Day

Rick Walters takes part in a private Memorial Day ceremony in Columbia Cemetery Monday.

 Monday, May 25


I began this diary entry on Memorial Day, the unofficial beginning of summer and the first weekend of what once was (and may again be) the Mother Lode’s tourist season. 

For years as a UD reporter, I’d write stories in the pre-weekend Friday paper about the tens of thousands of visitors we expected, how crowded our roads would be and how few of our campsites and motel rooms were left.  

Not this year: What’s new may instead be an increased awareness of the true intent of Memorial Day: To honor our fallen veterans.  Tuolumne County’s annual observances were highlighted in both The Democrat’s Friday and Tuesday editions, each with photos.  

Columbia’s event at the city cemetery was cancelled because of the virus. Twain Harte and Sonora went ahead with ceremonies Monday. And Tuolumne’s, on May 30, is this year sponsored by the community’s VFW chapter.  

You might wonder about May 30, which is Saturday.  Is that something new?  Well, Tuolumne’s traditional observance is actually something old: Between 1868 and 1971, May 30 was first Decoration Day and then Memorial Day.  

Conceived in the wake of the Civil War, the holiday for decades was observed by decorating vets’ graves with flowers.  After World War II, it became more commonly known as Memorial Day. A 1967 law made that name official.  

As widely admirable as recognizing fallen American vets might be, the history of the holiday is contentious. 

That it originated in the wake of the Civil War is clear, but who started it and where it was founded is not.  Some 25 towns in both the North and South claim to have in some way pioneered this holiday. 

A few samples: 

Warrenton, VA, claims to be the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated. That would be the resting place of John Quincy Marr, who died in June 1, 1861 during the Battle of Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia. 

In Columbus, GA, the Ladies Memorial Association wrote a letter to the post-war press in 1866 asking assistance in establishing an annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the South. The April 26 holiday was widely observed and later became known as the “Confederate Memorial Day.”  

Two years later, Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Decatur, Illinois-based Union Army vets group, issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” be observed annually and nationwide on May 30. In 1868, GAR-sponsored events were held at 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and it grew from there. 

The May 30 date?  Some historians say the GAR picked that date because so many potentially decorative flowers in the North were in bloom at that time. 

Southerners later claimed that Yankees had appropriated their holiday, which in Dixie was by turns celebrated on April 26, June 3 (Jefferson Davis’s birthday) or May 10 (the date Davis was captured). 

How Union Democrat founder Albert N. Francisco might have come down on this issue is not clear. 

But Little Frank detested Abraham Lincoln, once calling him “that corrupt, designing and vulgar-witted old rail splitter.”  More than a few readers, understandably, took to calling his paper “The Dixie Democrat.”  

Francisco himself was a “Union Democrat” – opposed to Republican Lincoln, but in favor of preserving the union.

Still, as peace had come and July 4, 1865 approached, the publisher took a conciliatory tone: “Now that the heavy clouds of war are passing away from the horizon of our country, and giving place to the serene skies and genial sunshine of other days, the American people can once more lift up their voices in fervent thankfulness for the blessings of unity and peace,” he wrote in an editorial. 

Alas, Francisco died in early 1867, just as the first campaigns for a national Memorial Day were beginning. 

By the early 20th Century, North and South were getting on the same page.  In 1913, a “Blue-Gray Reunion” was held in Washington, complete with parades and re-enactments. And both sides were coming around to a May 30 observance. 

Then let’s leap more than 50 years ahead, when President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 threw a monkey wrench into the lingering Memorial Day founding debate

In a presidential proclamation, LBJ recognized Waterloo, NY as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. That village claims that its town druggist Henry Welles and County Clerk John Murray founded the holiday. Proclamation or no, these claims have been discredited by historians and scholars.

After nearly a century, the May 30 holiday was switched to the last Monday in May in 1971. It came with passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act – which was federal acknowledgement that we Americans care about our fallen vets, but that we really love our three-day warm-weather weekends. 

So does everyone in the tourist business here in the Sierra foothills and high mountains.  

My drive down Washington Street Saturday showed Sonora to be a bit more crowded than normal, and a bit less “distanced” than it has been.   Still, given the corona crisis, it may be awhile until our highways, campsites and motel rooms are full again. 

But there might be a red, white and blue lining:  If the commercial quiet leads us back – at least for a little while – to a greater appreciation of the sacrifices our veterans have made, that’s a good thing.  

More than a century ago, an elderly Indiana GAR member warned that  we should never lose focus on the holiday’s real meaning. Youngsters born since the Civil War, he said, “have a tendency to forget the purpose of Memorial Day, and make it a day for games, races and revelry instead of a day of memory and tears.” 

Amid our new national crisis, memory and tears for the heroes who helped our nation survive the repeated past crises of war is most fitting.

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