May 30th is the real Memorial Day. Last Monday was the "observed" day, accommodating our lust for three day weekends. For those you who are old enough, the original name of the commemoration was "Decoration Day." The observance has several forerunners, all initiated to honor the fallen soldiers and sailors of the American Civil War.
Though the day has evolved to be commemoration of all our fallen servicemen, it is an opportunity to reflect on that most vicious and deadly of American conflicts. The low end estimate of fatalities alone in that single war equated to 2% of the total US population in 1860. Translated to today: more than six million American dead.
As a once and future history teacher, I strive to bring the relevance of our legacy to our youth. I have used every means available to capture their attention and stimulate their questioning minds. Among the many tools I use are audio-visual techniques, including selections from Hollywood movies rather than dry documentaries. For those questions the efficacy of this method, may I recommend you rent Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
You might think that the massive scale the six million fatality figure should make a lasting impression. Recent scholarship has revised the long-held base number upwards by 20%, meaning more than seven million American fatalities.
There is a problem with trying to impress students with the staggering numbers of the fallen. Numbers alone do not tell the story without context. A man once said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic..." How true.* We balance the carnage by bringing the horrific tale close to home, perhaps focusing on the story of a single family placing flowers on a grave--Decoration Day.
The name change to Memorial Day began in the late 19th Century, yet I recall calendars from my childhood (the 50's and 60's) that still listed May 30th as Decoration Day. Congress acted to settle the issue in 1967, establishing uniform guidelines for the naming of holidays; the next year, they created the Monday Holiday Bill which established the current state of affairs.
Veterans Day in November is a day to remember the sacrifice of all who served, focusing on the living veterans.** Memorial Day is our chance to focus to thank those who "gave their last full measure of devotion." You may choose, as I do, to specifically recall those who sacrificed their all to save our precious union when it was most at risk. God bless their memory, and may God bless these united states.
*This poignant quote is attributed to none other than Josef Stalin.
**For more discussion on the Memorial Day/Veterans Day comparison, cut and paste the following link: