Memorial Day will take place this year without in-person gatherings. There will be no ceremonies at Evergreen Cemetery and Tennessee Pass, no motorcycle ride from Silverthorne to Leadville and no barbecue at the Elks Lodge.
This year, it is up to us to honor those who died while serving in the United States military by ourselves.
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed in an organized manner on May 30, 1868, just three years after the Civil War ended. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, organized the event to honor fallen Confederate and Union soldiers.
“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime,” wrote the commander in chief of GAR, John A. Logan, in an order designating the holiday. “Let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the nation’s gratitude — the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
Around 5,000 people attended the inaugural Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. Attendees placed flowers and American flags on veteran graves and listened to former Union general and future president James Garfield speak.
Historians believe the May 30 date was picked for two reasons: because it did not fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, keeping politics at bay, and because flowers, used to decorate the graves, would be in the midst of their spring bloom.
Grave-decorating and public mourning of the Civil War’s fallen predated GAR’s 1868 ceremony.
In Charleston, South Carolina, just a few weeks after the Civil War ended, some 10,000 people, including freed slaves, schoolchildren and Union infantrymen, paraded to the city’s race course with songs and flowers to honor the Union captives that had been buried there.
In Columbus, Mississippi, about a year later, a group of women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers who fell in the Battle of Shiloh. As legend tells it, the women noticed neglected Union graves nearby and adorned those too.
That same spring, in Waterloo, New York, businesses closed for a day and locals flew American flags at half-staff in remembrance of Civil War soldiers.
For decades, Decoration Day honored only the Civil War’s fallen. After World War I, the holiday was widened to honor those who died in all American wars.
In 1971, Memorial Day as we know it was declared a federal holiday by Congress. In 2000, Bill Clinton signed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” into law, encouraging citizens to pause for a moment of silence at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day.
Though we might be physically distant on Monday, may we collectively honor veterans from afar.