Our nation hasn’t turned homeland battlefields into cemeteries since the Civil War. The mounting numbers of dead in that conflict required 14 national cemeteries in 1861, where unprecedented numbers of men would be buried before the war finally ended.
Arlington National Cemetery, now the last resting place of the "unknowns" and more than 300,000 veterans, was established after the Confederacy surrendered.
Exemplifying the divide our country had just barely survived, the graveyard was built on the estate of failed Gen. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anne Randolph Custis, granddaughter of President George Washington.
The devastation of that war was so great that dozens of communities across the country — North and South — began annual observances to honor those who had died in service. But it was at Arlington on May 30, 1868 that the first large-scale "Memorial Day" observance took place, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees our nation’s military cemeteries. About 5,000 attended, about the same number as in today’s observances.
Since then, America’s war dead have been buried across the world, in Europe, North Africa, Central America and the far Pacific. Acres upon acres have been filled with the gravestones of those who faced hellish enemies and the horrors of combat — remote tributes to the generations who gave everything in the service of our country.
After the Civil War, the Memorial Day tradition continued, growing in significance following each wrenching conflict until it was declared a national holiday — designated in 1971 as the last Monday of May, as the Vietnam War was in its final years.
It has become common to remind people that Memorial Day is not an occasion to recognize and honor veterans. Veterans Day, the November anniversary of the end of World War I, is the day for that. Specifically, it recalls the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, when the armistice agreement was signed in 1918.
Twenty years ago, Congress established the National Moment of Remembrance – 3 p.m. on Memorial Day – as a time for Americans to observe a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
Typically, that moment would come after the traditional Memorial Day parade and ceremonies so many communities get together for each year.
This year, of course, is different, due to the spread of the coronavirus across the country and the resulting quarantine orders.
Fortunately, there is still the opportunity to visit local cemeteries, many of which contain the graves of soldiers dating back to the Civil War, along with those that inspire bittersweet memories of beloved family and friends.
There has also been debate regarding whether "Decoration Day," as the holiday has also been called for generations, is a time to remember those departed loved ones, or to honor other heroes. Across the country, the memorial services draw people to cemeteries, so people of course still visit and tend to their family gravesites.
Even so, it’s worth remembering that if it weren’t for those who fought and died in service to our nation, America could have ended up a very different place.
However you observe Memorial Day this year, take some time to consider the ultimate sacrifice so many of our fellow Americans have made.