Memorial Day takes place in the United States on the last Monday in the month of May. This year it falls on Monday, 31st May. It is observed to remember the men and women who lost their lives in the line of duty. Commemoratives honoring fallen soldiers date back to ancient Athens and exist in one form or another in every country. Memorial Day is unique to the United States
Originally called Decoration Day, General John A. Logan decreed in 1868 that the 30th May should thereafter be a national day of commemoration for the soldiers who had died during the Civil War. However, the exact origins of Memorial Day are unclear with over twenty-five claims to have originated the holiday. It is likely that Logan was influenced by earlier commemorative events in the South.
One of the earliest known ceremonies took place at Warren Point, Virginia in 1861 when women decorated a Civil War soldier’s grave. Groups such as the Ladies’ Memorial Association were active at this time with the objective to preserve confederate culture, and part of their work was to establish and decorate cemeteries.
It was not until America entered the First World War that Decoration Day was expanded to honor those killed in all wars. Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day in 1967 and became a federal holiday in 1971.
Memorial Day is about keeping the memories of soldiers, sailors, and marines alive. At some level every American understands that behind each name is a story, a life, and loved ones left behind. Memorial Day is an excellent opportunity to explore and honor the memories of real individuals who lost their lives while in uniform.
Christopher Morgens had just graduated from Harvard University when he received notice of assignment to basic infantry training at Fort Benning. Indifferent to the Vietnam War, Christopher had signed up at the urging of his father, a decorated Air Force colonel. On receiving his notice, he wrote to his parents: “Dear mom and dad, I cannot readily conceive of anything more disastrous. My imagination boggles at the implications. My mind's eye is covered with blood.” Just over a year later, he was killed in central Vietnam.
Henry Gunther was one of the last American soldiers to die during the First World War. Henry was killed at 10:59am on November 11th 2018, moments before armistice took effect at 11am. It appears that his unit did not know that the war was over. Henry had also sustained a shot to the wrist the day before. He had been demoted a year earlier as punishment for writing a letter criticizing the war effort. After being drafted at 23 years old, Henry had reluctantly left his bank official job and a new girlfriend.
Army nurse Ellen May Tower volunteered for the Spanish-American War in April 1898. The daughter of a Civil War Captain, Ellen attended a nurse’s training program at Grace Hospital in Detroit. In September, she volunteered to go to Puerto Rico to care for wounded soldiers returning from battle. Ellen died there in 1898 after contracting typhoid. Her funeral in January 1899 marked the first military service for a woman in Michigan.
Learn their names. Read their stories. Lest we forget.
History Chip is a platform for everyone’s story. We welcome your contribution.