Opinion: This Memorial Day, let's honor the sacrifices of the fallen

Michael Warren

As you are trying to keep track of what day it is in the fog of COVID-19, if you are sharp, you will remember that May 25 is a Monday. And something else …

Eureka! Memorial Day. 

We are going to miss the family trips up north, barbecues, beer, wearing white and those spectacular sales. On the other hand, this gives us a tremendous, unique opportunity — if it settles our minds and lets us focus on first things first — actually giving Memorial Day its due.

Many cities and organizations claim to have given birth to this American tradition, but the record is clear that Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” near the end of the Civil War. Dedicated women and men decorated the graves of the war’s fallen soldiers. Like Athena springing from the skull of Zeus, they felt compelled, in a spontaneous fashion, to strew flowers on their tombs. No laws, resolutions or executive orders spurred the adorners to action. Then, women and men were inspired by each other to give solemn homage to the dead.

However, one cannot dam up a good idea — its power will spill over to the broader society. Major General John A. Logan was the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organization of former Union soldiers. He ordered that on May 30, 1868, the fallen be commemorated through ceremonies and decorations of their graves. The day was celebrated in 27 states.

That inaugural year began a tradition of ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. Former Union General, current Congressman and future President John Garfield was the keynote speaker.  Garfield reflected that the fallen had “summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and … made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

A member of the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Regiment walks his post in front of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery during the Memorial Day weekend in Arlington, Va., Sunday, May 27, 2018.

He also remarked that our history had made our “people unfit for despotism,” and the war dead sacrificed for freedom: “They must save their government or miserably perish.”

Logan’s order, widespread commemorations and Garfield’s inspiring words created a bedrock foundation to firmly establish Decoration Day as an annual celebration — held every May 30. Michigan led the way, officially recognizing it as a state holiday in 1871, and others followed suit.

Why May 30? Southern Decoration Days were tied to some key event of the Confederacy, but Logan yielded to a much stronger power — Mother Nature. The flowers would be in full bloom.

With The Great War (World War I) and the fading of the Civil War generation, Decoration Day expanded to include all war dead. The moniker Memorial Day took hold by World War II.

In favor of a three-day weekend, Congress uprooted nearly a century of tradition and shifted the date to the fourth Monday of May. With that change, much of the “memorial” was lost, and the travel season and other festivities began. 

Frederick Douglass declared on Decoration Day in 1871 that if “our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.”

Michael Warren

Nothing could be more true today.

This Memorial Day, go ahead and have fun (and stay safe). But also honor our fallen — through a prayer, moment of silence, flying the flag, attending a ceremony (if legal) or other meaningful reflection. Be worthy of the sacrifices of the fallen by rededicating yourself to American freedom and liberty. They — and you — deserve it.

Hon. Michael Warren is an Oakland County Circuit Court judge, co-creator of Patriot Week (www.PatriotWeek.org) and author of America’s Survival Guide (www.AmericasSurvivalGuide.com).