To answer this question we need to look back to the year 1868. In that year, the Civil War Veterans were in the news headlines and in the American psyche, as a grieving Nation was trying to care for the war dead, and Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) was expanding to accommodate their burial.
To help the grieving Nation and to honor those Veterans, General John Alexander Logan issued General Order #11, calling for the creation of Decoration Day – a time for the nation to honor its deceased veterans. In summary:
“The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance… Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic… Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of springtime; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and to assist those whom have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation’s gratitude – the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
Over the ensuing years, the popularity of Decoration Day grew and in 1888 was declared a national holiday and renamed Memorial Day.
Each year for Memorial Day, Old Guard soldiers honor the fallen Veterans laid to rest in ANC and the U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery by placing American flags at every grave in a ceremony known as “Flags In”. As part of Flags In, the Relief Commander at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Tomb) selects a Tomb Guard to do the same for the Unknowns .
Tomb Guards take an oath to never forget, and on this Memorial Day we remember the ultimate sacrifice made by:
- the Unknowns laid to rest at the Tomb
- all unknown war dead
- our Tomb Guard brothers who were Killed in Action:
and all Veterans and their families who have made sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy.
I’ll leave you with a poem by Moina Michael, "We cherish too, the Poppy red That grows on fields where valor led, it seems to signal to the skies that blood of heroes never dies.”
This ceremony is especially emotional for Tomb Guards, because they consider themselves the family of the Unknowns. ↩