May 29th, 2006 11:33 EST
Memorial Day Holiday originated in tiny village of Waterloo, New York
Washington -- The Memorial Day holiday celebrated by Americans on the last Monday of each May represents for many the unofficial beginning of summer. An estimated 37.6 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more over the long holiday weekend, as they seek out friends and family, beaches and amusement parks, while others relax and enjoy the warm weather. But most will pause at some point to recall the holiday’s true purpose: honoring those who died defending their nation.
Memorial Day entertainments range from large sporting events to quintessentially small-town celebrations. The Indianapolis ("Indy") 500 motor race, by some measures the world's largest single-day sporting event, attracts an estimated global audience of more than 320 million.
Meanwhile, in Waterloo, New York, festivities include an arts and crafts show and a strawberry festival. Horse and wagon rides are available. An Abraham Lincoln impersonator recounts the life of the nation's 16th president, the man who preserved the Union. Those not too full from the pizza-eating contest can compete in a 5-kilometer race.
The tiny village of Waterloo, 280 miles (450 km) from New York City (2000 population 5,118) is where Memorial Day began. Its story, and that of the holiday itself, is woven deeply into the nation's history.
HISTORY OF MEMORIAL DAY
Memorial Day’s origins lie in the American Civil War of 1861-1865. During that conflict, which claimed the lives of more than 550,000 Americans, many citizens began to place flowers on the graves of the war dead. A number of northern municipalities continued these "Decoration Days" after the war ended, but the decisive event occurred in Waterloo in 1866.
Waterloo resident Henry C. Welles, the town's druggist, hit on the idea of setting aside a day to honor the nation's Civil War dead. Among his customers was John B. Murray, who had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the Union (northern) Army and served as clerk of Seneca County. Murray adopted the idea as his own, and was instrumental in Waterloo's first Decoration Day, on May 5, 1866.
Murray's circle of friends included General John A. Logan, a commander of Union forces at the Battle of Atlanta in 1864 and head of large and influential fraternal organization of Union veterans. Convinced by Murray of the need for such a holiday, Logan in 1868 designated May 30 of that year a day "for strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
Among the ceremonies held that day was one at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia across the Potomac River from Washington. President Ulysses S. Grant presided. After the speeches and tributes, thousands of war orphans, veterans and others decorated the graves of the Civil War dead. There were more than 20,000 such graves at Arlington Cemetery alone.
By the turn of the century, nearly every state had declared Decoration Day an official holiday. After World War I, Decoration Day expanded to honor those killed in all of the nation's wars and after World War II become known as Memorial Day. Congress established the federal holiday in 1971, and fixed its observance on the last Monday in May.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
HONORING OUR WAR DEAD
In the United States, the Veterans Day holiday recognizes all those who served in the armed forces, during times of peace and war. Memorial Day recognizes those who gave their lives for their nation.
The original Waterloo commemoration centered on the decoration of soldiers' graves, the lowering of flags to fly at half-staff, and the organization of veterans' parades. These ceremonies continue in cities and towns across the nation. The president or vice president typically presides at Arlington Cemetery, and solemn observances are held at Civil War battle sites, including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Sharpsburg (Antietam), Maryland.
At 3 p.m., a National Moment of Remembrance unites Americans in prayer and thought as they contemplate the sacrifices made in their behalf.
Thus, even as Americans enjoy their long weekend and the prospect of summer, they also can be found in more somber moods. Wreaths will be laid, thanks given and heads bowed in recognition of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
For additional information on U.S. celebrations, see “Veterans Day” and “An Overview of American Holidays.”
More information about Memorial Day in Waterloo is available on the town’s Web site.