By Julianna Duerksen
Can you imagine if the entire population of Denver, 650,000 people, died within four years? It would be a tragedy never to be forgotten. Around 620,000 men gave their lives in the War Between the States (the Civil War) — and that’s a low estimate. It was the sacrifice of these thousands of largely unknown heroes that inspired the celebration of Memorial Day.
Just three years after the War Between the States, General John Logan of the Great Army of the Republic, an association of Union war veterans, proclaimed the first day of remembrance. He called it Decoration Day — a day set aside to decorate the gravesites of the dead. That day, May 30, 1868, President Garfield made a speech at the Arlington National Cemetery, and the public strewed flowers across the 20,000 graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers.
At first, the South refused to recognize the day and instead remembered their dead on separate holidays. But when World War I caused an additional 116,516 deaths, America united in memory of all those who had died for the sake of American liberty. We renamed the day Memorial Day. Since then, World War II brought casualties numbering 405,399 — a little less than the population of Colorado Springs. In fact, since our founding as a nation, an estimated 1.8 million have died in the service of our country.
Poppies added an entirely new element to Memorial Day. When Moina Michael heard of the tragedy of the World War I battle expressed in the poem “In Flanders Fields,” she had an idea. Dashing off her own poem, Michael began the tradition of wearing poppies — the flower strewn across the battlefield of Flanders — to remember the dead. Soon, the sale of poppies began to support servicemen returning from the war, and poppies became a distinguished mark of Memorial Day celebrations.
Today, we celebrate Memorial Day by raising the American flag first full-staff and then bringing it down to half-staff until noon to remember our dead. After noon, we raise the flag full staff once more to symbolize our duty to cherish and protect freedom. The price of liberty is high, and we cannot take that liberty for granted. Memorial Day reminds us to live in such a way that those who died would not have died in vain. The privilege of life is ours — may we too guard our liberties with such passion.
Here is your free unit study activities!
- Listen to veteran’s tell their stories! Veterans Chronicles is a podcast (find on Apple music or Spotify) that interviews many WWII vets, including this amazing story of Pearl Harbor survivor Jim Downing.
- Moina Michael’s poem, “Shall We Keep the Faith?” was the beginning of the poppy’s place in Memorial Day. Her poem is a response to World War I Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s work “In Flanders Fields.” You can read the poem here. And, while you’re reading, why not let your kids create this fireworks craft to keep their hands busy?
- Read Oliver Wendall Holmes’ famous Memorial Day speech, given in 1884: In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire.
- Find directions to make your own Remembrance Day poppy here.
- Here are some fun patriotic recipes to last the whole day!
Have fun and happy Memorial Day!
Originally Taken from Colorado Civics. Learn more and purchase this full-year civics and Colorado history curriculum here.