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Memorial Day History

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Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead” (Source: Duke University’s Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it’s difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860′s tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

General John A. Logan
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-B8172- 6403 DLC (b&w film neg.)]

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971 (P.L. 90 – 363) to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays), though several southern states have an additional separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: January 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.

In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael replied with her own poem:

We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She then conceived of an idea to wear red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms.Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. In 1921, the Franco-American Children’s League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their “Buddy” Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

Traditional observance of Memorial day has diminished over the years. Many Americans nowadays have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day. At many cemeteries, the graves of the fallen are increasingly ignored, neglected. Most people no longer remember the proper flag etiquette for the day. While there are towns and cities that still hold Memorial Day parades, many have not held a parade in decades. Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.

There are a few notable exceptions. Since the late 50′s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program). And in 2004, Washington D.C. held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”

The Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day. What is needed is a full return to the original day of observance. Set aside one day out of the year for the nation to get together to remember, reflect and honor those who have given their all in service to their country.

But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is for a return to its traditional day of observance. Many feel that when Congress made the day into a three-day weekend in with the National Holiday Act of 1971, it made it all the easier for people to be distracted from the spirit and meaning of the day. As the VFW stated in its 2002 Memorial Day address: “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.”

On January 19, 1999 Senator Inouye introduced bill S 189 to the Senate which proposes to restore the traditional day of observance of Memorial Day back to May 30th instead of “the last Monday in May”. On April 19, 1999 Representative Gibbons introduced the bill to the House (H.R. 1474). The bills were referred the Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Government Reform.

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This Week In American Military History: Bonhomme Richard to Space Shuttle Columbia

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This Week in American Military History:

Feb. 1, 1800:  The frigate USS Constellation (the first of four so-named American warships) under the command of Capt. Thomas Truxtun defeats the French frigate La Vengeance under Capt. F.M. Pitot in a night battle lasting several hours. The engagement, fought during America’s Quasi War with France, is – according to Truxtun – “as sharp an action as ever was fought between two frigates.”

Feb. 1, 1862:  Julia Ward Howe’s poem “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which begins “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” is published in the Atlantic Monthly. It will become a Union Army ballad. Today, the ballad is a martial hymn sung in American military chapels worldwide and by descendents of Union and Confederate soldiers alike.

Feb. 1, 1961:  The Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the first three-staged, solid-fueled ICBM – is launched for the first time in a successful “all systems” test.

Minuteman I is the first missile in the still-operational Minuteman family. Minuteman IIIs are still deployed. The name “Minuteman” comes from the famous “minutemen” of America’s colonial militia.

Feb. 1, 2003:  The doomed Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) disintegrates upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crewmembers, including:

•    U.S. Air Force Col. Rick D. Husband, mission commander
•    U.S. Navy Commander William C. McCool, pilot
•    U.S. Navy Capt. David M. Brown, mission specialist
•    U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, payload specialist
•    U.S. Navy Commander Laurel B. Clark, mission specialist
•    Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, payload specialist
•    Civilian research scientist Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist

Feb. 2, 1848:  The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo – which begins, “In the name of Almighty God” – is signed by representatives of the United States and Mexico, officially ending the Mexican-American War.  According to the Library of Congress, the treaty “[extends] the boundaries of the United States by over 525,000 square miles. In addition to establishing the Rio Grande as the border between the two countries, the territory acquired by the U.S. included what will become the states of Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, most of New Mexico and Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.”

Feb. 2, 1901:  Congress authorizes the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps under the Army Medical Department.

Feb. 3, 1801:  Nearly one year to the day after Constellation’s thrashing of La Vengeance, the U.S. Senate ratifies the Mortefontaine treaty, officially ending the Quasi War with France.

Feb. 3, 1961:  Two days after the Minuteman I test-launch, the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) launches its EC-135 flying command post – codenamed “Looking Glass” – in order to maintain seamless and secure command-and-control of U.S. nuclear forces in the event ground-based command-and-control is wiped out in a nuclear attack. “Looking Glass” aircraft will be airborne 24/7 for the next three decades. According to the U.S. Strategic Command (which replaced SAC): “On July 24, 1990, Looking Glass ceased continuous airborne alert, but remained on ground or airborne alert 24 hours a day.”

Today, the U.S. Navy’s E-6B Mercury is America’s “Looking Glass.”

Feb. 4, 1779:  Continental Navy Capt. John Paul Jones takes command of the former French frigate, Duc de Duras, renaming her Bonhomme Richard (after Benjamin Franklin’s pen name). It will be aboard the Richard – badly damaged and sinking during the famous battle in the North Sea with the Royal Navy frigate HMS Serapis on Sept. 23 – that Jones refuses a surrender demand, allegedly replying, “I have not yet begun to fight!” It has also been widely reported that when the Serapis’ Captain Richard Pearson inquired as to whether or not Jones had lowered or struck his colors, Jones shouted back, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!”

Incidentally, Bonhomme Richard (the first of five so-named American warships) does sink: But not before Pearson himself surrenders (believed to be “the first time in naval history that colors are surrendered to a sinking ship”), and Jones transfers his flag to his newly captured prize, Serapis.

Jones is destined to become “the Father of the American Navy,” though – in some circles – it is argued that title belongs to Commodore John Barry.

Feb. 4, 1787:  Shays’ Rebellion – a short-lived Massachusetts uprising led by former Continental Army Capt. Daniel Shays and spawned by crippling taxes and an economic depression in the wake of the American Revolution – is quashed by Massachusetts militia.

Feb. 4, 1944:  Kwajalein Atoll is secured by U.S. forces.

Feb. 4, 1945:  The Big Three – U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin – meet at the Crimea Conference (best known as the Yalta Conference) to discuss among other points what was to become of soon-to-be conquered Germany and the nations the Nazis had previously defeated.

Feb. 5, 1918:  U.S. Army Lt. Stephen W. Thompson, a member of the American 1st Aero Squadron, is invited by French aviators to fly in a French Breguet bomber as a gunner on one of their missions. It is on that mission that Thompson shoots down a German Albatross fighter over Saarbrucken, Germany; making him the first American in uniform to shoot down an enemy airplane.

Today, the U.S. Air Force’s 1st Reconnaissance Squadron traces its lineage back to the 1st Aero Squadron.

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American Military History Dec. 22-28

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Dec. 21, 1861:  The congressionally conceived “Medal of Honor” is signed into law authorizing such medals be awarded to enlisted sailors and Marines who “distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action and other seamanlike qualities.” The Army version of the medal is signed into law the following summer.

Dec. 22, 1864:  Following his “March to the Sea” and just before his “March through the Carolinas,” Union Army Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman presents the captured city of Savannah (Ga.) to Pres. Lincoln as a “Christmas gift.”

Dec. 24, 1814:  The Treaty of Ghent is signed ending the War of 1812.

Dec. 25, 1776:  Continental Army Gen. George Washington conducts his famous crossing of the Delaware River from the icy Pennsylvania shoreline to the equally frozen banks of New Jersey. It will be followed by an eight-mile march to the town of Trenton where he will meet and defeat the Hessians (German soldiers allied to the British).

Speed of movement, surprise, maneuver, violence of action, and the plan’s simplicity are all key. Fortunately, the elements will all come together.

The factors in Washington’s favor are clear: The weather is so bad that no one believes the Continentals will attempt a river crossing, much less a forced march at night. The Continentals are numerically – and perceived to be qualitatively – inferior to the British Army. The Hessians, mercenaries allied to the British and who are garrisoned in Trenton, have a battlefield reputation that far exceeds their actual combat prowess. And no one believes the weary Americans will want to attempt anything with anyone on Christmas.

Hours before kickoff, Washington has his officers read to the men excerpts of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis.

By 4:00 p.m. the force of just under 2,500 men gathers at McKonkey’s Ferry, the launching point for the mission. The watchword, “Victory or death,” is given. As darkness sets in, the men climb into the boats and begin easing out into the black river.

Washington’s crossing and subsequent raid has been dubbed “America’s first special operation” in some military circles: Though there were many small-unit actions, raids, and Ranger operations during the Colonial Wars, and there was a special Marine landing in Nassau in the early months of the American Revolution. Still no special operation in American military history has been more heralded than that which took place on Christmas night exactly 234 years ago, this week.

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This Week in American Military History: From the King’s Proclamation to Richie’s MiG

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This Week in American Military History:


by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
08/24/2010

Aug. 23, 1775: Less than two months after the Second Continental Congress issues its “Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms [against the British]” in which the Congress resolves “to die free men rather than live as slaves,” King George III issues his own proclamation declaring the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

The king adds, “not only all our Officers, civil and military, are obliged to exert their utmost endeavours to suppress such rebellion, and to bring the traitors to justice, but that all our subjects of this Realm, and the dominions thereunto belonging, are bound by law to be aiding and assisting in the suppression of such rebellion, and to disclose and make known all traitorous conspiracies and attempts against us, our crown and dignity.”

Aug. 23, 1864: Union Naval forces under the command of Adm. David Glasgow Farragut – best known for purportedly uttering the command, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” – take Fort Morgan, effectively ending the near-month-long battle of Mobile Bay.

Aug. 24, 1814: British forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross close-with and defeat a mixed American force of Continental Army regulars, Marines, sailors, and militia under overall command of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Henry Winder in the battle of Bladensburg, Maryland on the road to Washington, D.C. during the war of 1812.

The disastrous defeat of the Continentals at Bladensburg will enable the British to march on, sack, and burn the nation’s capitol within a few hours. But according to legend, the British are so impressed by the indomitable stand of the American Marines and sailors – who “broke two British regiments” during the fighting – that the commandant’s house and the Marine barracks will be spared the torch when Washington is burned.

Aug. 25, 1944: U.S. and French Army forces liberate Paris. The Germans fall back.

The BBC reports: “This evening French, American and Senegalese troops marched triumphantly down the Champs Elysee to ecstatic cheers of Parisians, young and old.”

Aug. 28, 1862: The Second battle of Bull Run (known to many Southerners as Second Manassas) opens between Union Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. John Pope and Confederate Army forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (Gen. Robert E. Lee in overall command).

Within days, Confederate forces will drive Union forces from the field, not unlike what happened at First Bull Run/Manassas on July 21, 1861.

Aug. 28, 1972: U.S. Air Force Capt. Richard Stephen Richie, flying an F-4 Phantom, shoots down his fifth MiG over North Vietnam, becoming the Air Force’s first ace of the war.

But to hear Richie tell it, it was just a ride. “My fifth MiG kill was an exact duplicate of a syllabus mission, so I had not only flown that as a student, but had taught it probably a dozen times prior to actually doing it in combat,” he says.

Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).

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Mr. Smith is a contributor to Human Events. A former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor, he writes about military/defense issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. E-mail him at marine1@uswriter.com.

From Galloping Gates to the Gulf of Sidra

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This Week in American Military History

by W. Thomas Smith Jr.
08/17/2010

Aug. 15, 1845: The War Department transfers Fort Severn, Annapolis to the Navy Department, specifically the new Naval School under Commander Franklin Buchanan.

The U.S. Naval Academy is established.

Franklin, who serves as the school’s first superintendent, is destined to become an admiral in the Confederate Navy.

Aug. 15, 1945: Japanese Emperor Hirohito broadcasts his surrender message to the Japanese people, a portion of which reads:

“…the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interests. The enemy, moreover, has begun to employ a new most cruel bomb, the power which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would only result in the ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation … but would lead also to the total extinction of human civilization.”

Hours before the radio broadcast, Japanese Army Maj. Kenji Hatanaka – leading a group of diehards opposed to surrender – attempts a coup to prevent the broadcast. The coup fails. Hatanaka commits suicide.

Aug. 16, 1780: The Battle of Camden (S.C.) – one of the worst tactical blunders on the part of the Continentals during the American Revolution – opens between British Army forces under the command of Gen. Sir Charles Cornwallis and Continental Army forces under Gen. Horatio Gates.

Though the Americans will be decisively defeated at Camden – thanks to Gates’ improperly positioning inexperienced militia against seasoned regiments of the regular British Army, as well as his complete loss of tactical control – the battle will prove to be something of a highwater mark for British forces in the southern colonies (after Camden, it’s pretty much downhill for the British).

Gates himself will break and run, earning him the nickname, “Galloping Gates.” But the heroics of many of the ill-fated albeit last-standing Continental officers and men (like Gen. Johann Baron de Kalb) will prove to be exemplary. And Gen. George Washington – always able to recover from strategic setbacks – will choose the exceptionally able Gen. Nathanael Greene as Gates’ replacement.

Aug. 16, 1940: Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s parachute test platoon begin jumping over Fort Benning, Georgia. The airborne exercise (actually more of an experiment) is the first for the Army.

In 2001, Pres. George W. Bush will proclaim “August 16” of each year as National Airborne Day.

Aug. 17, 1942: Ahoy Raiders! U.S. Marine Raiders strike Makin Island in the Gilberts.

Sgt. Clyde Thomason, killed during the fighting, will become the first Marine in World War II to receive the Medal of Honor.

Aug. 17, 1943: U.S. Army Gen. George Smith Patton Jr. beats his British Army counterpart Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery to the gates of Messina, Sicily, in what Patton had purportedly referred to as “a horse race in which the prestige of the U.S. Army is at stake.”

Aug. 19, 1812: In one of the most dramatic sea battles of the War of 1812, the frigate USS Constitution engages and captures the smaller frigate HMS Guerriere in a contest of broadsides and close-quarters combat between opposing crews of sailors and Marines (the American leathernecks pouring a terrific fire into the unfortunate British officers and men aboard Guerriere).

According to the Naval Historical Center, “Despite the rational excuse that Royal Navy frigates were not as large and powerful as their American counterparts, the real causes of these outcomes were inspired seamanship and vastly better gunnery. For the rest of the 19th Century, long after the War of 1812 was over, America’s Navy was credited with an effectiveness that went well beyond its usually modest size.”

Constitution (known affectionately as “Old Ironsides”) is the oldest ship in the American Navy. Launched in 1797, she serves today as a duly commissioned ship crewed by active-duty U.S. sailors and Naval officers in order to further public awareness of American Naval tradition.

Aug. 19, 1981: One-hundred-sixty-nine years to the day after the victory over HMS Guerriere, the U.S. Navy – specifically two F-14 Tomcats — knocks down two Libyan Su-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra.

Aug. 21, 1863: Confederate guerillas under the command of William Clark Quantrill (operating outside of the control of regular Confederate forces) launch a bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas.

Quantrill – who purportedly once served in the Missouri State Guard – is widely considered a brigand and a cutthroat. That reputation continues today. To some, however, he remains a folk hero.

Aug. 21, 1942: Just after 3:00 a.m., “Banzai”-screaming Japanese assault forces – primarily members of the elite Japanese Special Naval Landing forces – attack U.S. Marine positions on Guadalcanal in what will become known as the Battle of the Tenaru River.

The first wave is momentarily slowed as the Japanese struggle to get through the Marines’ barbed wire and American rifle machinegun fire rip into their ranks. At one point, the enemy breaks through and the fighting degrades into a savage hand-to-hand struggle with knives, machetes, swords, rifle butts, and fists. The Marines kill scores and hold their positions.
Subsequent Japanese attacks follow, but all are beaten back with heavy losses.

Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).
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