Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry’s shot alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon’s sudden roar,
Or the drum’s redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
In 1882, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was already the most renowned American poet of his day. In 1857, he helped found The Atlantic, an illustrious periodical. Longfellow was perhaps best known for his stirring patriotic ode “Paul Rever’s Ride” which appeared in the January 1861 issue, a poem memorized and known by countless generations.
Longfellow’s “Decoration Day” is less known, but altogether poignant. It first appeared in The Atlantic and began circulation in June of 1882. The poem “pays tribute to what was then a new form of civic observance: a day set aside to commemorate those who had perished in the Civil War by placing flags and flowers on soldiers’ graves, a custom that gradually gave rise to our modern Memorial Day honoring all who give their lives in military service” (The Atlantic). A few weeks prior to the poem’s debut, Longfellow died at his home in Cambridge at the age of 75.
The first official “Decoration Day” or as we know it today, “Memorial Day” was held on May 30, 1868. Then General, and later President, James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to honor the Civil War dead by decorating with flowers, wreaths, and flags the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery.
Decoration Day events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869.
By the late 19th century, communities across America began observing Decoration Day. Following World War I, observers began decorating the graves of all veterans of America’s wars. It wasn’t until 1971 that Congress declared Memorial Day as a national holiday to be observed the last Monday in May.
Other observances: The long-cherished Memorial Day tradition of wearing red poppies got its start in 1915.
Read More: Poppies of Memorial Day
Not until after World War II, did “Decoration Day” become the more common “Memorial Day.” And in 1967, it became the official name by Federal law in 1967.
Today, traditional Memorial Day rites have dwindled in many communities. Preferring instead to remember Memorial Day as the first day of summer.
Celebrations remain strong, however, at Arlington National Cemetery where more than 400,000 service members and their families are laid to rest. In 2016, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment will place 250,000 flags at gravesites, which will be up until Memorial Day.
Let’s Not Forget: Ways to Remember
Display the Flag
On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon. In the morning, the flag should be raised momentarily to the top and then lowered to half-staff. Americans can also honor prisoners of war and those missing in action by flying the POW/MIA flag.
Read More: Memorial Day U.S. Flag Etiquette
Visit & “Decorate” Gravesites
Visit the gravesites of your family members and ancestors, decorating them with flowers for all and flags for U.S. service members who died serving in America’s wars.
To find family gravesites, visit FindAGrave.com.
If your ancestor is not listed, take a photo and post on their website so that others in future generations can find it.
Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance
In accordance with a congressional resolution passed in 2000, Americans pause wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time for a moment of silence to remember and honor the fallen.
Visit Local Veterans’ Homes and Hospitals
The Memorial Day holiday is a great time to remember veterans living in assisted living homes and hospitals. Consider a visit and thank them for their service.
Attend Memorial Day Parades
The Memorial Day parade is a time-honored tradition to celebrate and honor those who sacrificed and have given so much. in cities and towns across America. Neighbors come together to remember with pride those who sacrificed so much for our country.
Brush up on Family and American History
Memorial Day is a favorite time for Americans to read their family history, look at old photographs and learn about their ancestors, especially those who died in the service of their nation. It’s also an occasion for reading Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and other historic and patriotic speeches by presidents and leaders of the armed services.
Search Ancestry.com to search for leads in your family genealogy.
Wear Memorial Day Poppies
The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrea. War worker Moina Michael made a personal pledge to always wear red silk poppies as an emblem of “keeping the faith with all who died,” and began a tradition that was adopted in the United States, England, France, Australia and more than 50 other countries.
Read More: Memorial Day Poppies