Memorial Day is a national holiday that has lost much of its original meaning. To many people today, Memorial Day is the day the swimming pools open. It is the day when many people turn off their furnaces - whether they need to or not - and hopefully await the arrival of summer. And it is the day when many men, young and old, demonstrate their cooking skills - such as they may be - for the first time of the year on an outdoor grill.
Memorial Day is a national holiday that has lost much of its original meaning. To many people today, Memorial Day is the day the swimming pools open. It is the day when many people turn off their furnaces — whether they need to or not — and hopefully await the arrival of summer. And it is the day when many men, young and old, demonstrate their cooking skills — such as they may be — for the first time of the year on an outdoor grill.
And of course, none of these practices have much to do with what Memorial Day originally was all about.
Memorial Day was brought into being by the Civil War.
Prior to the Civil War, the people of our country had come to our cemeteries from time to time and decorated the graves of the people who had come before with flowers and other forms of remembrance.
During the Civil War not just thousands but tens of thousands of men had died in the service of their country. And the United States of America, North and South, wanted to remember all of those who died.
So it did.
Of course, since we live in a country where a lot of people occasionally don't agree about things important to them, the way we remembered all of those people who died varied somewhat from time to time and place to place. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic — the Union veterans organization — declared in General Order Number 11 that May 30 should be set aside "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country."
With that, Decoration Day was born.
Not to be outdone, several southern states soon had decoration days of their own. Confederate Memorial Day, as it came to be known, was held on a variety of different days, none of them being May 30.
But for most people living in the North, May 30 came to be called Decoration Day and was celebrated as such. It soon came to be the date to recognize the graves not only of people who served in the military but of friends and family as well.
And in Columbus, that is precisely what was done.
In Franklin County in 1910, 118 soldiers had been called by death within the previous year.
They, and the many people who had served in the military before them, were remembered in a variety of ways.
Most of the churches in Columbus had special services of remembrance on the Sunday before the Monday celebration of Decoration Day. On the holiday itself, schools and government offices were closed, as well as many local businesses.
At 8 a.m., veterans in uniform began to gather in front of Memorial Hall on East Broad Street. At 8:30, accompanied by several marching bands and a large number of people currently serving in the military and National Guard, a parade began west on Broad to High Street. Turning left, the parade moved down High Street to State Street and left on State Street to Fourth and back north to Broad Street. At 9 a.m., the veterans boarded streetcars, which took most of them to Green Lawn Cemetery and some to nearby Calvary Cemetery.
At Green Lawn, the veterans were met with large wagons full of flowers that had been gathered by the school children of Columbus in the previous few days, many of whom were present to help place the flowers and small American flags on the graves of the hundreds of veterans buried there.
Formal ceremonies, religious and military, were held at three places in Green Lawn: at the Soldiers Circle, the United States burial lot and at the Ex-Soldiers and Sailors county monument.
Later in the day, at 2 p.m., members of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic and other veterans groups gathered at the railing at the middle of the Broad Street Bridge and cast flowers into the waters of the Scioto River. This was done in remembrance of soldiers and sailors who had lost their lives at sea.
Then as now, Memorial Day was a holiday as well. Special trains were scheduled to take people to Buckeye Lake, and not one but two baseball games were scheduled to be played between Columbus and a visiting team from Louisville, Ky. And downtown theaters and suburban amusement parks all offered full schedules of programming as well.
For many people of course, the holiday was simply a chance to have family gatherings and reunions in one form or another.
Memorial Day casts a long beam of sunlight across the American landscape and often we tend to forget how far that light extends. The last dependent of a Revolutionary War veteran did not die until 1911. The last dependent of a veteran of the War of 1812 did not die until 1946. There are 108 children and 125 widows of Spanish American War veterans still receiving benefits today, as are three children of Civil War veterans.
And there are more than 2.7-million veterans of military service who are living among us and will be remembered on Memorial Day.
As well they should be.
Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.