Memories of Memorial Day

Memories of Memorial Day

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day we take time to celebrate those who gave their life for our country while serving in the armed forces. To honor the fallen we hold parades, set out graveside decorations, make speeches and remembrances and take time to give thanks for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

As a child I marched in my hometown Memorial Day parade with my Boy Scout troop. I remember being so proud to be asked to carry the American flag and how careful I was to make sure the flag didn’t touch the ground. My town had a wonderful tradition of parading to the oldest cemetery where one of the high school trumpeters would step forward to play taps, the musical piece played at dusk and at military funerals. After the trumpeter finished the piece, we would hear the song come back to us from the within the cemetery. To me this echo was as if those interred were calling back in thanks for being remembered on that special day. The echo was played by a second high school trumpeter who had earlier taken up position out of sight and near the back of the cemetery, waiting for the right moment to play the response.

The history of Memorial Day has been debated due to varying accounts of how it began. All accounts agree it started as a way to honor the Civil War dead. So, I did an internet search and realized there was information I never knew, and an entire book had been written on the subject.

Olivia Waxman wrote “The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day” in the May 2020 edition of Time Magazine. Waxman’s article was inspired by David Blight’s book “Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.” Blight’s research revealed the first Memorial Day was “organized by freed slaves and white missionaries that took place on May 1, 1865, at a former planters’ racetrack where Confederates held captured Union soldiers during the last year of the war. At least 257 prisoners died, many of disease, and were buried in unmarked graves, so Black residents of Charleston decided to give them a proper burial,” Waxman wrote. There were two known newspaper accounts of the events.

The full Time Magazine article can be found at: https://time.com/5836444/black-memorial-day/

According to Waxman, Blight feels strongly the first Memorial Day celebration was pushed into the dusty corner of history because of racism. To me this shows the importance of our ongoing work to understand and reveal our full history as a nation. It seems like the best way to honor those who gave their lives for the nation.

I am reminded of the work of local historians to uncover what time has almost lost. I’ve written about a grant TLGV funded to help local historian and educator Donna Dufresne work on a project with Killingly High School and ACT Performing Arts Magnet High School in Willimantic to research and document the history of the Connecticut 29th Regiment, the state’s first Black regiment during the Civil War. Dufresne and the students have researched Charles Webster of Eastford, Giles Gardner of Killingly and John Nichols of Canterbury. Webster’s life is likely the best documented of these men and even then, we are unclear where he is buried. Dufresne’s research also indicates Webster and the others were killed by disease rather than battles, like so many Civil War troops.

But these men were willing to fight and die to retain the nation and to ensure the freedom of Black people everywhere in the country. These are names we should remember along with those of the more famous fallen.

Despite Memorial Day’s roots in the Civil War, it was World War I that began its evolution to the holiday we know now.

History.com states “Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War IIThe Vietnam WarThe Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.” The article can be found at:  https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history.

Over the years my appreciation of Memorial Day has shifted from my youthful excitement of parades and family barbeques to a recognition of its role in bringing communities together to celebrate as one, to act beyond themselves and take a moment to give thanks and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

There are many people from the hill towns and mill towns of The Last Green Valley who entered the Armed Forces, were called into battle, and did not return. From the Revolutionary War to the present, local cemeteries are the final resting places for many such heroes. Some are well known, such as General Nathaniel Lyon of Eastford. Lyon was the first Union General killed, and he died in Missouri in 1861 at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Others are like Webster, Gardner and Nichols, lost to history unless ours and future generations do the work to reveal the full fabric our history.

That is why it is so important that we all participate in our local Memorial Day ceremonies. If we don’t take the time to remember them, and to honor their sacrifice, then who will? It is for us, each year on the last Monday of May, to bow our heads, to hear taps played yet again, and to listen for quiet thanks as that simple melody is echoed back to us.

Many towns here in The Last Green Valley have parades stepping off in the morning hours. At the front is the color guard provided by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion and followed by the guest of honor – typically the oldest Veteran in town. High school bands provide marching music and local police, and fire departments turn out with their safety vehicles or march alongside. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Little League and soccer teams sometimes join in the parade followed by local civic or charitable organizations with patriotic floats. The parades usually end at a town green or common where all gather to hear speeches by local dignitaries, lay a ceremonial wreath in remembrance and end with gun salutes to our fallen heroes.

I hope you plan on attending your town’s Memorial Day. We live in a region that is rich in both natural resources and cultural resources — the history that make our region unique. On Memorial Day let us come together in our shared stories of those who died defending our country. Let us relish the company of family and community, and together let us enjoy, care for and pass on to the next generation this special place called we call home – The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or bill@tlgv.org.

Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, May 29, 2022: The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.

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