Freedom is not Free: A History of Memorial Day

Monday, May 12, 2014

According to the United States Office of Veteran’s Affairs Memorial Day has a long and rich history. The first large observance was held May of 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. A date was chosen when flowers would be blooming all over the country.


Local springtime tributes to the Civil War dead already had been held in various places. One of the first occurred in Columbus, Miss., April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.  Approximately 25 places have been named in connection with the origin of Memorial Day, many of them in the South where most of the war dead were buried.


By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.


It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May.


Many Southern states also have their own days for honoring the Confederate dead. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. North and South Carolina observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3. Tennessee calls June 3 Confederate Decoration Day. Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day and Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day January 19.


The Gatesville Messenger of June 25, of 1909 has an article telling about the planned  Confederate Veterans Celebrations to be held August 3-6. By the time I had finished reading about it I wanted to go myself. Here is the description given of the festivities. “The first two days are for the Confederate Veterans with an automobile show and trades display.  A 20 piece band will play and there will be a free pyrotechnic display each evening. There will be baseball games and carnival attractions. There will be ice water at convenient places all over the grounds and generous camping room has been arranged with plenty of water for stock (most came by wagon and camped at Fauntleroy Park).  A special train two days is promised on the Cotton belt with special low rates.”



The Coryell County Scrapbook also lists “Those Who Gave Their All To Their Country” . One section is World War I, another larger section is World War II and a third section is for the Korean Conflict. There are a total of 135 names of those who died, proving the statement,  “Freedom is not free”. These men never came home to their mother and father, wives and children. They  never saw beautiful Coryell County again.  Many are buried in Europe or Asia and their remains could not be brought home.


Coryell Museum has a large memorial exhibit which includes displays  for the War of 1812, World War I, World War II,  Iwo Jima and Viet Nam and Iraq. There is a large display of maps particularly showing the Normandy Invasion. Included is a ladies exhibit case of  dozens of photos of nurses, Civil Service workers, workers in the Cantina on North Ft. Hood and the ladies known as Rosie the Riveter.


According to A History of Coryell County on December 14, 1946 Bill and Bain Allen dedicated a $7,000 granite memorial to the Coryell County war dead from World War I and World War II.  One hundred and thirty- five names are inscribed on this memorial. At the dedication ceremony Judge R.B. Cross was the Master of Ceremonies, Chaplain Jan McMurry read the list of names of the dead and a firing squad performed the volley, taps were played and the National Anthem was played by the Gatesville High School Band as the flag was raised.  This granite memorial stands today on the Coryell Courthouse lawn. Go see the memorial and read the names of  the Coryell County men who gave their lives for our freedom. A list of those soldiers is also listed on page 238 in A History of Coryell County.


Over 24 centuries ago the Athenian leader Pericles gave a tribute to those who died in war. He eloquently stated, “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions,  but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”


Coryell Museum and Historical Center is open Tuesday thru Saturday as is our gift shop. Yearly Coryell Museum memberships are $20 for singles, $30 for families, and $40 for businesses and include free admission to the museum plus 4 newsletters.  Of course, large and small donations are welcome at all times.


Coryell Museum offers area schools and tour groups a delightful guided tour thru the museum with docents at many exhibits. Call the museum at 865-5007 to plan a visit.