Historian gives Memorial Day address

By Bill Birns, Town Historian, Town of Middletown
Honor and Memory are the reasons we gather today. We honor, today, the memory of those who have died in defense of our country, died in defense of our independence, died in defense of our liberty. It is fitting and just that we honor them.

Since our nation’s founding, Americans have gathered in the warming days of late May to honor the memory of our war dead. On Monday, May 26, 1783, a year-and-a-half after the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, the people of North Stratford, Connecticut celebrated a Great Jubilee Day to honor the memory of the sacrifices that allowed American arms to win our independence.
The American Civil War brought to this continent carnage of unprecedented proportions. Fully 625,000 men, north and south, lost their lives in the struggle that saved the nation and ended the horror of slavery.

But such savage butchery left battlefields strewn with corpses. Proper burial became a national preoccupation, as did providing the hallowed dead all the honor their sainted memory required.
Small town New York claims the origin of Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was then-called. Henry Welles was a small town druggist in Waterloo, New York who, in 1866, conceived the idea of a community-wide decoration day to dress-up and beautify the graves of the many war-dead. In this way, all the people of the town would join together to honor the memory of each of the many individuals who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

But Waterloo, NY was not alone. People in other small towns throughout the United States gathered to decorate graves and honor the memory of the dead. In 1868, the nation’s largest veteran’s organization was The Grand Army of the Potomac. General John Logan, their first National Commander, proclaimed May 30th of that year as Decoration Day for every post. Within five years, New York State had proclaimed Decoration Day a holiday. Our last- Monday-in-May-three-day-weekend Memorial Day dates from 1968.

Great Jubilee Day, Decoration Day, Memorial Day, this late-May day of honor and memory has been a vital part of the fabric of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Let it ever be so.

Today we pause to honor the memory of those who died in defense of our country, died in defense of our independence, died in defense of our liberty. It is fitting and just that we honor them. Let us give honor. Let us remember.