GREENVILLE — While the last weekend in May, for many, signals the beginning of the summer season, with its mild temperatures, blooming flowers, graduations, and vacations, it is also the one weekend that we take time to remember those whom we have loved and lost. In particular, we set aside a special day – Memorial Day – to pay tribute to those in military service who sacrificed their lives protecting and preserving the freedoms we cherish.
The observance of what we now call ‘Memorial Day’ began with General John Logan, who in early May 1868, along with a veteran’s organization of Union army veterans, called for a national day of remembrance to recognize the devastating loss of life throughout the Civil War, — especially in small towns and cities. Logan asked that May 30 be a day set aside, “…for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country….”
First known as ‘Decoration Day,” then Major General James Garfield, an Ohioan who served on many battlefields, including Middle Creek, Shiloh, and Chickamauga, addressed a crowd of with 5,000 at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, as he commemorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. Garfield would later be elected as President in 1880, but died by an assassin’s bullet five months later, in 1881.
Some historians suggest that the tradition of honoring the fallen with parades can be traced back to May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, where a commemoration parade was held on a horse track to honor 257 Union soldiers who died as Confederate prisoners of war (and were buried on the site). According to historical records, a crowd of 10,000 freed slaves and abolitionists attended, with 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying bouquets of flowers, singing the tune, John Brown’s Body. The 54th Massachusetts and other black Union regiments performed double-time marches, with ministers reciting Bible verses.
While both Northern and Southern states had ‘Decoration Days’ since 1890, it was not until after World War I, in 1918, that all states recognized a single day in tribute to those who died during all wars. Allied Canadian brigade surgeon John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, inspired many in the U.S. to wear bright red poppies in remembrance of the fallen, especially on Decoration Day.
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. Many traditions continue to be observed: the American flag should be hung at half-staff until noon, then raised to the top of the staff; and, in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution encouraging all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m.
Although Memorial Day is observed annually with parades and ceremonies, another important way to honor the fallen is by visiting a military or historical museum throughout the year. Many museums have a dedicated military section, specifically to tell the stories of local men and women who responded when asked to serve their country. Here, in Darke County, residents have the opportunity to spend some time in a few extraordinary places devoted to preserving the past.
The Garst Museum, located at 205 N. Broadway Street in Greenville, has recently reopened to the public, after the COVID-related closures. Located on the second floor, “The Keepers of Freedom’ exhibit features artifacts and uniforms of Darke County veterans from every American conflict, including the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the war in Iraq. One exhibit of significance is that of Darke County native and Medal of Honor recipient Douglas Dickey, who served in Vietnam during 1967, and sacrificed his life to save others from an enemy grenade explosion. With its comprehensive collection, the Garst Museum has recently completed its Phase 1 renovations of the ‘Keepers of Freedom,” and welcomes all to stop by.
The Versailles Area Historical Museum, located at 554 S. West Street, on the corner of West and State Route 121, in Versailles, has also recently reopened to the public as of April, 2021. Now in its 12th year, the Versailles Area Historical Museum’s Military Room houses numerous artifacts and family collections from the period of the Civil War to the present, belonging to local Versailles residents and surrounding communities.
Freedom isn’t “free.” While we should take time on Monday to honor the sacrifices made to ensure our freedoms, it is important to consider that there is no “time limit” on remembrance and reflection. As we forge ahead with our plans for summer gatherings, picnics and barbeques, perhaps we should also consider taking an extra day (or two) to walk through a museum or memorial, remembering that each soldier’s “last full measure of devotion” is our gift to cherish.