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Veterans Day and Memorial Day—Two Federal Holidays Honoring those Who Serve With Honor

Faces of Discord The Civil War Era at the National Portrait Gallery A Woman’s War - Southern Women, Civil, War and the Confederate Legacy The United States provides two federal holidays in observance of those citizens who served honorably in the military, Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Memorial Day honors any veteran who died either on the battlefield or as a consequence to injuries sustained during battle.

American women acted in different capacities, not only to make these holidays come about, but also, to aid in their national and international recognition. These women were: the southern women who started the practice of decorating the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers— Mary Logan, the wife of General John Alexander Logan who, upon observing this practice in Virginia, suggested it for all fallen soldiers— and Moina Belle Michael, who first started the movement of wearing poppies in remembrance of fallen soldiers of World War I.

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first celebrated in 1868, when General John Alexander Logan National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, G.A.R. issued General Order No.11 designated May 30 the day

‘for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of Comrades who died in defense of their country in the late rebellion.’

Born the son of a Scots/Irish immigrant medical doctor who farmed in the state of Illinois, John A. Logan (1826-1886) went on to fame in careers as a lawyer, military man and member of the Senate. An image of General Logan can be found in a monograph in the Smithsonian American Art/National Portrait Gallery Library named Faces of Discord the Civil War Era at the National Portrait Gallery. The image is taken from the painting, Grant and His Generals by Ole Peter Hansen Balling (1823-1906), oil on canvas, 1865. This painting is on permanent exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery Wing of the Smithsonian Reynolds Center. In the painting, General Logan appears in the center between the two flags and the generals Sherman and Grant. The Smithsonian American Art/ National Portrait Library (AA/PG) also houses the monograph, John A. Logan Stalwart Republican from Illinois, which states:

‘John A. Logan’s most enduring act as G.A.R. commander was his designation of May 30 as Memorial Day. The practice of placing flowers on soldiers’ graves began with southern women. Northern troops observed the practice, and by 1865 the graves of Union dead were being similarly decorated … In March 1868 when Mary Logan visited several Virginia battlefields she saw flags and faded flowers on Confederate graves. She described the practice to Logan and he shortly decided to make it G.A.R policy.’

The Smithsonian American Art/National Portrait Gallery Library’s Vertical File Collection contains a small catalog, A Woman's War Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, A checklist for the exhibition produced by the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia on the occasion of its Centennial year opening November 22,1996, with a checklist of the exhibition held at the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia, November 1896. It states:

‘Whether black or white, enslaved or free, rich or poor, few Southern women emerged from that time unchanged.’

Among the artifacts in the exhibition were: ‘an engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 25, 1863 of “Cemetery in New Orleans-Widow and Daughters in Full Mourning”, an 1877 photograph from the Library of Congress of Harriet Tubman, a slave whip and a slave collar.’

In order to ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays, Congress declared the National Holiday Act of 1971, and the day was officially named Memorial Day which would be celebrated on the last Monday in May.

Faces of Discord The Civil War Era at the National Portrait Gallery, ed. James G. Barber, The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2004, E467N382006, ISBN-13-978-0-06-11358402

John A. Logan Stalwart Republican from Illinois, James Pickett Jones, Board of Regents of the State of Florida, 1982, CT275L837J7, ISBN 0-8130-0729-1

Veterans Day honors any veteran deceased or living who has served honorably in the military either in wartime or in peacetime.

The nation’s second federal holiday instituted to honor those serving in the armed forces is Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) proclaimed Armistice Day to be November 11, the date of the cessation of battles between the Allied nations and Germany in 1918. In European countries this day has been known as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day or Poppy Day. The reference Poppy Day alludes to both the poem, In Flanders Fields, as well as, the popularity of selling poppies for the welfare of war veterans and their families.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Army wrote one of the most quoted war poems, In Flanders Fields as a eulogy to war dead, especially his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer who died in battle May 2, 1915. As a medical surgeon McCrae had witnessed first-hand the suffering and death at the Battle of Ypres, Belgium. In response he wrote:

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

In 1918, Moina Belle Michael (1889-1944) an American teacher from the state of Georgia was so moved after reading the poem that she dedicated the rest of her life to popularizing the red field poppy (papaver rhoeas) in making it a symbol of the sacrifice of veterans of World War I. The idea caught on in Europe, and to this day, red poppy lapels are sold in European countries for the benefit of veterans and their families.

October 3, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) issued the Veterans Day Proclamation which called for the proper and widespread observance of this day. He designated the Administrator of Veterans’ Affairs as Chairman of a Veterans Day National Committee to coordinate the planning of observance. Later, President Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) signed a law returning the annual observance of Veterans Day’s back to its original date of November 11, starting in 1978.

Alice Clarke

Related images can be viewed in the Smithsonian American Art / National Portrait Gallery Library set on flickr.

One Comment

  1. Nell in Ontario

    re statement : “Memorial Day honors any veteran who died either on the battlefield or as a consequence to injuries sustained during battle”
    A war veteran means a survivor of his time in military service, not those who lost their lives as a result of it, the Fallen, the war dead.
    The former return to continue their civilian lives, often for many years.
    Most of the latter didn’t live long enough even to know which side was victorious.

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