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What is Memorial Day? (Hint: it’s not just a day for barbecuing)

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

On the fourth Monday in May we observe Memorial Day, a commemoration that originated in the years immediately following the Civil War. It was known in early years as Decoration Day because it provided an opportunity to visit and adorn the graves of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. Gen. John A. Logan, leader of the Union veterans group Grand Army of the Republic, called for the first national day of recognition to be held on May 30th, 1868. “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Logan instructed, “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

What began as a day devoted to the fallen servicemen of the Union and Confederate Armies became something more in the wake of World War I. America lost more than 100,000 military personnel during our two-year involvement, and by 1920 those fallen men and women were also being honored in Memorial Day ceremonies. The Great War left another mark on Memorial Day as well. The red poppy – warn on a lapel or handed out on the corner – is a symbol that can be traced back to the atrocities witnessed on the battlefields of WWI.

Many will be familiar with a 1915 poem penned by Canadian physician John McCrea, “In Flander’s Field,” which opens with the lines “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row.” Less well known is the poem written in 1918 by a YMCA staffer named Moina Michael, titled “We Shall Keep the Faith,” in which the author promises to wear a poppy in honor of the dead. Michael is credited with creating the now-ubiquitous tradition of wearing a red poppy on Memorial Day. By 1922 the Veterans of Foreign Wars had adopted the sale of poppies a major fundraiser for disabled service men and women.

The American flag plays an important role in most Memorial Day commemorations. The traditional flag raising practice on the last Monday in May is unique. After being briskly hoisted to the top, the flag is solemnly returned to half-staff in memory of all those who have perished in service. At noon the flag is returned to the top of its staff, symbolizing that “their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all,” according to the VFW Auxiliary.

Please take a moment on Monday to remember the true meaning of Memorial Day, participate in a local program, or simply observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00pm. If you’d like to learn more about how World War I impacted Latah County, please visit our exhibit in the McConnell Mansion. Museum hours and additional information can be found at

LCHS Photo 15-02-006. A parade through Troy to celebrate Armistice Day, November 1918. The procession of local enlisted men was led by members of the Grand Army of the Republic and veterans of the Civil War.

LCHS Photo Loomis.D.01. Dudley Loomis as a high school student in Moscow, before enrolling at Idaho State University. Loomis joined the Army in 1917 at the onset of American involvement in WWI. He was killed in a training accident and was the first local casualty of the war. The American Legion Post #6 is named in his honor.

LCHS Photo 01-08-056. Local residents participate in a Memorial Day ceremony at Ghormley Park in the 1960s, which included decorating the Ghormley memorial stone. Adorning monuments with flowers and flags is a tradition that goes back to the earliest commemorations of Decoration Day.

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