Reasonable people disagree on the exact origins of what is now called Memorial Day. But most accept that the practice of decorating the graves of Americans who died defending their country began in earnest by women of the South during and following the Civil War.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Army of the Republic, was the first to make Memorial Day official with General Order No. 11, which stated in part that, “the 30th day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
Since then, other than Congress making it a national holiday and changing the date to the last Monday in May, America has honored its fallen heroes from all conflicts in pretty much the manner that General Logan anticipated with the language of his order, whereby “posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
When America issued its first call to arms – before it was a country, before there was a standing professional army – the call went to the militia, which was identified as “all able-bodied men.” Calling themselves the “Minutemen,” because they could be ready to fight on a minute’s notice, they were primarily shopkeepers, craftsmen, farmers, etc. Today, we call them small business owners.
From as far away as Scotland, America’s Minutemen were impressive. Writing about the colonies’ quest for independence from England in his classic work “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith predicted America would prevail thanks to its militia, which “turns from its primary citizen character into a standing army.”
By the 20th century, state militias had become the National Guard. And by 1916, the National Defense Act created another layer of citizen soldiers, the Reserves.
Prior to the war with Spain in 1898, latter-day Minutemen served only on American soil. But ever since, including two World Wars and four major conflicts, America has deployed citizen-soldiers around the world alongside regular forces. Indeed, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guard and Reserve members have accounted for one-third of U.S. forces, as well as a comparable percentage of casualties.
Whenever they’ve been called, small business owners and their employees have left the marketplace to demonstrate their courage – and die, if necessary – on the battlefield. So this weekend, as we honor all who paid the ultimate price in service to this country, let’s also remember that many were America’s small business volunteers who faithfully answered the call to serve in harm’s way on behalf of a grateful nation.
Write this on a rock …
As Lincoln prayed, on this day we honor and celebrate all of those who poured out their last full measure of devotion for you and me, on behalf of a grateful nation.