U.S. Navy M-1917 Memorial Helmet
This is an American Model 1917 steel helmet memorializing the death of a member of the United States Navy, Walter Munnich. Munnich's name is inscribed on top above a cross, the date of his death, June 3, 1936, and the United States Navy acronym.
The History of Memorial Day
When Memorial Day became a national holiday, it began as a day of remembrance for the many sacrifices made by servicemen and women. Yet becoming a national holiday happened much later in its history, and it transformed dramatically from its inception in the aftermath of the Civil War. While many associate Memorial Day with putting aside differences to honor the sacrifices of those who serve and protect their country, it actually has roots in the most divisive event in American history.
Decoration Day, the original name for Memorial Day, was formed in the wake of the Civil War and the catastrophic losses of the North and South. On May 5, 1868, Major General John A. Logan, the head of Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veteran’s organization, declared May 30 to be Decoration Day, and ceremonies were held at the Arlington National Cemetery.1 His order pronounced that the decorating of graves was specifically for those “who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion” – meaning Union soldiers. The order goes on to say the following:
What can aid more to assure [the preservation of goodwill among Union veterans] than cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead, who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes? . . . Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonour; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.2
Thus, the first official Decoration Day began as an event for the sacrifice of Union soldiers, held in a Union burial ground. Decoration Day at this time was meant not only as a day of remembrance, but a day of affirmation for the ideals of the Union and the sacrifices made for those ideals.
While the GAR declared May 30, 1868, Decoration Day for Union soldiers, many other towns across the United States had their own days of remembrance – many of them in the South. The first formal ceremony was on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, as crowds turned out for a parade and traditional grave decoration. Another occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866, when women decorated both Confederate and Union graves of soldiers who had died at Shiloh. Other towns that held celebrations independently before the GAR’s Decoration Day include Macon, Georgia; Columbus, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois, and many others (though President Lyndon Johnson eventually named Waterloo, New York as the official originator of Memorial Day).3 Even today, many Southern states have holidays to specifically celebrate the Confederate dead, including Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.4
While the first official ceremony was focused on the sacrifices of Union soldiers, the individual ceremonies that took place across the United States showed the need for a national day of mourning and remembrance. This would not be fulfilled until after World War I, when “the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.” Finally, Memorial Day became a national holiday by act of Congress in 1971, and was set as the last Monday in May. In December 2000, Congress and the President established “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” and created the White House commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The National Moment of Remembrance is set at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day, and all Americans are encouraged to take a moment of silence “to remember those who have died in service to the nation.”5
President Ronald Reagan affirmed the reason Americans celebrate Memorial Day when he spoke at Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran’s Day in 1985. A quarter of the way through his speech he said the following:
It is, in a way, an odd thing to honor those who died in defense of our country, in defense of us, in wars far away. The imagination plays a trick. We see these soldiers in our mind as old and wise. We see them as something like the Founding Fathers, grave and gray haired. But most of them were boys when they died, and gave up two lives – the one they were living and the one they would have lived. When they died, they gave up their chance to be husbands and fathers and grandfathers. They gave up their chance to be revered old men. They gave up everything for our country, for us. And all we can do is remember.6
|United States||Interwar Period|
|Infantry Helmet||1917 — 1918|