Memorial Day: It’s Not Just a Picnic

Did you know that Memorial Day (in the United States) was originally called Decoration Day?

Decoration Day originated after the American Civil War to honor, remember, and decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in combat. By the 1880s, Decoration Day was gradually and informally being referred to as Memorial Day. In 1967, it was declared the official name by Federal law. [1] By that time, the day had also extended to remember all Americans who had given their lives in service to the United States Armed Forces.

The Antietam National Cemetery at the Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland Antietam National Cemetery is one of the 130 cemeteries of the National Cemetery System, a system that began during the Civil War. There are 4,776 Union remains (1,836 or 38% are unknown) buried here from the Battle of Antietam, South Mountain, Monocacy, and other action in Maryland. All of the unknowns are marked with small square stones. These stones contain the grave number, and if you look closely on a few stones, a small second number represents how many unknowns are buried in that grave. There are also a few of the larger, traditional stones that mark unknown graves. In addition, more than 200 non-Civil War dead are also buried here. Veterans and their wives from the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and Korea were buried here until the cemetery closed in 1953. Recently an exception to the closure was made for the burial of Keedysville resident Patrick Howard Roy, United States Navy. Fireman Roy was killed during the attack on the USS COLE and was buried in the Cemetery on October 29, 2000. If you walk to the back of the cemetery you will notice a few separate graves. Ironically, on the battlefield that led directly to Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, African-American graves from WWI were segregated to this out-of-the-way corner..

In this photo: The Antietam National Cemetery in Sharpsburg, Maryland, contains the remains of 4,776 Union soldiers, 1,836 of which are unknown and marked with small square stones. Also, some of the veterans and their wives from the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and Korea were buried here. Most recently, nearby Keedysville resident Fireman Patrick Howard Roy, United States Navy, was buried in the otherwise closed cemetery on October 29, 2000, after being killed during the attack on the USS COLE. In the back of the cemetery are African-American graves from World War I.

One of my favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan, summed up Memorial Day and extended a challenge to all Americans in his May 31, 1982, speech at Arlington National Cemetery. His words still ring true, and I pray that ten, twenty, a hundred years from now these words describe our nation, not our nation’s history.

The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper. Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply. It has a cost; it imposes a burden. And just as they whom we commemorate were willing to sacrifice, so too must we — in a less final, less heroic way — be willing to give of ourselves.

[1] Alan Axelrod (1 June 2007). Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps. Globe Pequot. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-59921-025-4