A Memorial Day project
Memorial Day is one week from today here in the United States.
Perhaps because death is a topic we try to avoid in our American culture, perhaps because most Americans alive today — the Legal Genealogist included — have not lost a father or a brother or a son in war, for most of us, it’s become the kickoff to the summer season, the last day of a long weekend at the beach or in the parks.
But that’s not what it started out as. And it’s not all it should be.
Memorial Day honors the dead of all American wars. It began in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, as Decoration Day, a day on which an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — asked the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers:
The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.1
That wasn’t the first such ceremony, of course. In the spring of 1866, a group of women in Columbus, Mississippi, brought flowers to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who’d died at the Battle of Shiloh. The story goes that they couldn’t bear to leave the graves of the Union soldiers who’d fallen bare, and so left flowers for them as well.2
After the First World War, Decoration Day came to honor all American dead, and in 1981, it was renamed Memorial Day and declared a national holiday.3
And there is one other law on the books that we may not know about. It was called “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” in which Congress found, among other things, that:
• “it is essential to remember and renew the legacy of Memorial Day, which was established in 1868 to pay tribute to individuals who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to the United States and their families;”
• “the relevance of Memorial Day must be made more apparent to present and future generations of people of the United States through local and national observances and ongoing activities;” and
• “… commemorative events are needed to reclaim Memorial Day as the sacred and noble event that that day is intended to be.”4
So… how about it? How about all of us who are so committed to family history? How about we — you and I — take just a little time, somewhere over the next week, and join the Honor Roll Project of my friend and fellow blogger Heather Wilkinson Rojo of Nutfield Genealogy?
She started the Honor Roll Project in 2010, to ensure that there will be a readily accessible record of the names of those honored by all the small towns and cities across America. And it’s easy to be part of it.
Here’s what it takes:
1. Find a war memorial and/or honor roll in your community.
2. Photograph it.
3. Transcribe the names on it.
4. Post the photos and transcription to your blog or website. And if you don’t have a blog or website, Heather has volunteered to post your material to hers.
5. And tell Heather you’ve done it.
All the details, including how to contact her, are set out in Heather’s blog post today, “Would you like to contribute to the Honor Roll Project for Memorial Day?.”5
Yeah, we’re all busy. Yeah, this will take a little time.
But it’s just a little time.
In memory of those who gave us all of theirs.
We can do this.
Image: New Jersey Korean War Veterans Memorial.
- “Memorial Day History,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www.va.gov/ : accessed 18 May 2014). ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- See 36 U.S.C. §116(a) (“The last Monday in May is Memorial Day”). ↩
- P.L. 106-579 (2000). ↩
- Heather Wilkinson Rojo, “Would you like to contribute to the Honor Roll Project for Memorial Day?,” Nutfield Genealogy (http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/ : posted 19 May 2014). ↩
The 1866 ceremony in Columbus, Mississippi was not the first. Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims to have held the earliest Memorial Day observance, in 1864:
Other locations claim earlier observances:
There were several that claimed to have had earlier remembrances. The one that won the official “we were first” nod was Waterloo, New York, on the basis that it was the first town-wide memorial that continued into the future.
Thanks for mentioning the project on your blog, Judy. This is a simple project, just snap a photo and transcribe the names on your neighborhood honor roll. You can find them in public parks, in schools, in town halls, and many other places. The names cannot be found by search engines unless they are transcribed in the text of the blog post. Thank you everyone who participated in past years, and for those will help out this year!
Thank YOU for putting this together!
I love the idea, but a leg injury will prevent me from participating this year (it’s enough agony to get to the office for reduced hours every day; I’m not going to go looking for monuments I’m not aware of). I do hope this is repeated annually!
Sorry to hear about the leg, Dave! Hope all heals well, and I’m sure Heather will keep this going — it’s in its 5th year now (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014)!