Elizabeth stood up and started walking to another part of the cemetary. "Where are you going?" asked Edwina. "Just over there," she answered, pointing toward her destination. "But those are Union graves," said Edwina. Elizabeth smiled at her friend and said, "Somewhere up north there is a mother, a wife, a child, mourning the loss of one of these boys. Wouldn't we want them to do likewise for our fellows buried up there?" With that she turned and walked down the gentle slope to where the Union soldiers were buried.
The place was Columbus, Mississippi, it was a warm day in late May, 1863. Elizabeth Hayes and her friend Edwina Swarthmore had come to the cemetary to lay flowers on the graves of soldiers who had fallen in the still raging War between the States. Someone at the local newspaper heard about what the women had done and published a story about it in the next day's edition. Other newspapers soon picked up the story and before long it even appeared in northern papers. As word spread, other Americans followed suit and began to lay flowers on the graves of soldiers in their local cemetaries.
In the Spring of 1866, Henry C. Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, NY, suggested that the patriots who had died in the Civil War should be honored by decorating their graves. General John B. Murray, Seneca County Clerk, embraced the idea and a committee was formed to plan a day devoted to honoring the dead. Townspeople made wreaths, crosses and bouquets for each veteran's grave. The village was decorated with flags at half mast. On May 5 of that year, a processional was held to the town's cemeteries, led by veterans. The town observed this day of remembrance on May 5 of the following year as well.
Decoration Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed officially on May 30, 1868. Ironically, the South did not observe Decoration Day, preferring to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I. In 1882, the name was changed to Memorial Day, and soldiers who had died in other wars were also honored.
In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday to be held on the last Monday in May.
Several American communities claim to have initiated the practice, the story of Elizabeth Hayes and Edwina Swarthmore is more legend than reality and their names come from imagination rather than from history, but none of that really matters. What matters is that Americans set aside time to honor those who have given all in a cause they believed to be just, the American cause.
The great American poet, Walt Whitman, had a special place in his heart for soldiers and devoted parts of his epic work, Leaves Of Grass, entirely to soldiers, veterans, and war. Dirge For Two Veterans is from the part entitled Drum Taps. In it Whitman describes how a father and son fell in the same Civil War battle and are now being laid side by side, together for all time. The closing lines express the real meaning of Memorial Day.
We can do no less.