Memorial Day, a time for flags
This weekend, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, military personnel will place more than 275,000 flags in front of grave markers. The ceremony, known as “flags in,” will be imitated throughout the United States.
Memorial Day, May 26 this year, is a chance to remember lost veterans, especially those who died in combat, as well as deceased members of families. The occasion, originally called Decoration Day, is a time for placing flowers and flags at gravesites.
The observance was initiated in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “the first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery,” located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. “The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion,” the VA notes. Ironically, it was “once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee.”
Presiding over the first service was General Ulysses S. Grant, who would be elected president later in 1868. Congressman James Garfield, who would also become president, gave the main address and said of the dead: “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death.”
After the speeches, according to the VA, “children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home…made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.”
In addition, a small U.S. flag was speared into the ground near each grave, an act repeated in cemeteries around the nation. In its preview article about the first Decoration Day, The Daily Citizen and News in Lowell, Massachusetts, described how “an arch of evergreen will be erected over the enclosure of the monument” to fallen soldiers and sailors. “A miniature flag is to be placed on each grave.”
A year later, The Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press outlined plans for that city’s honoring of its “fallen heroes,” a term that is still in use. “Each grave,” the article explained, “will be designated by a small American flag [so] that the last resting place of no hero…may be passed by unheeded.”
That tradition of placing flags on gravesites continues, meaning that Memorial Day remains true to its origin as a day of remembrance – and flags.