Memorial Day, known in the past as Decoration Day, serves as a day of remembrance for all those who have died in service of the United States of America.
Although over two dozen cities and towns claim to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day, President Lyndon B Johnson in 1966 declared the delightful village Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace. They celebrate Memorial Day in a big way every year, and even have the National Memorial Day Museum. As a side note, I spent a lot of time doing research on my thesis in Waterloo. They not only commemorate Memorial Day, but also celebrate their connection to the 19th century women’s rights movement and the first women’s rights convention in next door Seneca Falls.
Waterloo, New York, will tell you that it was a local druggist, Henry C. Welles, who first mentioned his intent to remember the fallen from the Civil War by placing flowers on their graves. On May 5th, 1866 the entire village was decorated with flags at half- mast and ceremonies were held in cemeteries. Others give credit to women of Columbus, Mississippi, in 1866 who, after the Civil War, began visiting cemeteries and decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen.
Regardless of its origins, by 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic made this declaration:
“the 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of the 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.”
The first large commemoration of Memorial Day after the designation was held at Arlington National Cemetery, across from the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. A gathering of about 5,000 people showed and placed small American flags on each grave. It was not until after World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to include all those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday.
Today, Memorial Day is still commemorated with ceremonies and special events honoring the fallen heroes of the past, many cemeteries still place American flags on each grave. Designated in 2000, there is also a National Moment of Remembrance that “encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.” This designation created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, encouraging “the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity.”
No matter what part of the Heritage Area you are visiting, our partners are offering a lot of special events this Memorial Day weekend. The National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, in downtown Kansas City will be holding a ceremony at 10:00 a.m., followed by a Walk of Honor Ceremony at 1:00 p.m. Free admission to the museum will also be offered. If you’re in the area on Sunday May 24th, you can take part in Kansas City Symphony’s Celebration at the Station. The largest event of its kind in the Midwest that includes the Kansas City symphony playing patriotic favorites against the backdrop of Kansas City’s historic Union Station. It’s a Kansas City tradition and a great place to reflect.
If you’re headed to north Kansas City, stop off at the Armed Forces Ceremony at the Big Shoal Cemetery on Saturday, May 23rd. This ceremony will be honoring those veterans buried at the historic Big Shoal Cemetery, the morning activities for the Armed Forces Day Celebration will take place on the grounds of the Big Shoal Heritage Area and include a gun salute, speakers, and period military demonstrations.
If you’re on the Kansas side, head to the Historic Topeka Cemetery Memorial Day weekend for their Ride for the Fallen World War I event. In Garnett, KS you can take part in their annual “Avenue of Flags” event that commemorates every veteran who is buried within the Garnett Municipal Cemetery.There is also a Memorial Day ceremony on Monday May 25th in the Garnett Municipal Cemetery.
Freedom’s Frontier is also home to several National Cemeteries where you can honor our heroes who have fallen; Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Fort Scott National Cemetery, Leavenworth National Cemetery, Baxter Springs City Soldiers’ Lot, and Mound City Cemetery Soldiers’ Lot and Union Confederate Monument Site. All these locations are open on Memorial Day.
Whatever you find yourself doing this Memorial Day weekend, take a moment to reflect and memorialize those fallen who have provided us with the freedoms we have today. Happy Memorial Day!
– Elizabeth Hobson
Freedom’s Frontier Interpretation & Education Manager