Celebrating Decoration Day in 1984

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IT used to be called Decoration Day and was observed on May 30. Today it's known as Memorial Day and is celebrated on the last Monday in May, mostly to give Americans a long weekend. And it used to be a day of solemn remembrance of the nation's war dead - by decorating graves with spring flowers.

Decoration Day was nurtured by the Civil War. The enormous loss of life on both sides moved communities to honor their dead in the springtime.

May appeared to be the best month for such remembrance, although the specific day would vary for some years until 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans organization, set aside May 30 for a national observance.

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New York became the first state, beginning in 1873, to make the day a legal holiday, and slowly major cities and other states followed suit. For example, 100 years ago in 1884, Decoration Day was observed in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Richmond, Va.; Philadelphia; Baltimore, Frederick, Annapolis, and Antietam, Md.; Wheeling, W.Va.; Boston; and San Francisco. At the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., as well as at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., the services drew large crowds.

Yet, for years in the late 19th century, it was in New York City that the most impressive Decoration Day observance took place.

On May 30, 1884, the President of the United States, Chester Arthur, was in New York rather than Washington for the observance, and despite the fact that the day fell on a Friday, the city's business came to a halt. Streets were lined with American flags, some at half-mast.

Early in the morning, there were services at the Lincoln Statue in Union Square, and the big event was a solemn parade of soldiers and floral wagons. Scheduled for 9 o'clock, the parade was delayed for an hour. Once begun, however , it was awesome, with a grand total of 8,000 troops marching from 50th Street down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square. It was an affair of nearly two hours, followed by families moving on to cemeteries with flowers to decorate the graves of soldiers.

Not that there weren't other matters on the minds of Americans on May 30, 1884.

It was a presidential election year, with a full array of political charges and countercharges spread across the nation's newspapers like wilted floral arrangements.

And there was the fact that Washington's coffers were being disbursed so liberally to Union soldiers under the guise of disability pensions that virtually anyone laying claim to a sore toe or elbow received a Treasury check. In fact, a speaker at a Wilkes-Barre observance was courageous enough to condemn this sorry state of affairs.

As Decoration Day passed through the years, more removed from the emotions and memories of the Civil War, its raison d'etre would be nearly forgotten.

The nation's next large-scale war, World War I, would have its own special observance in Armistice, now Veterans, Day each November, although World War II would give some attention again to Decoration Day: Indeed, I can recall as a child my family's observance of May 30 during the 1940s by visiting cemeteries with relatives whose sons and husbands never came home. And Vietnam would add an entirely new and distinct phase to paying homage - to the war dead of a long and controversial struggle.

With the median age of Americans just a tad over 30, Memorial Day, 1984, for many citizens is far removed from the holiday's history. For them, it's the day when the big speed-car race is run. Or the time when their baseball team hosts a double-header. Or the weekend when the swimming pool opens. Or it's an informal benchmark of the changing seasons: Summer has begun.

All well and good, but the day's history should be recalled. That's what the term ''memorial'' is all about, serving to bind one generation of Americans to others.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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