Memorial Day and Labor Day mark the unofficial beginning and end of summer. They’re days to grill out, watch sports, and celebrate an extended weekend with family or friends. According to my late mother-in-law, they were the first and last acceptable days to wear white. Days to give our war dead and our workers a passing thought.
The Civil War killed more Americans than any other war in history. In village after village, the bereaved brought spring flowers to decorate their graves. Over time Decoration Day became a widespread state and local holiday, extended to later wars, and evolved into the federal Monday holiday called Memorial Day. Wartime losses no longer pervade whole communities as they did in the Civil War. We have fewer graves to visit. Each new one still represents a tragedy.
Am I the last person in the U.S. to hear of the National Moment of Remembrance? It started in 2000 by presidential proclamation and then federal law, designating one minute at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day to honor Americans who died to keep us free. According to a White House fact sheet, “3:00 p.m. was chosen because it is a time of day when most Americans are likely making the most of the freedoms we enjoy.” One minute of Taps or silence and then back to the freedoms we enjoy: to grill out, watch sports, or celebrate an extended weekend with family and friends.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.