A single shot rang out in Washington at 9 a.m. on May 23, 1865. With that, 80,000 men of the Army of the Potomac, led by Gen. George Meade, marched from Capitol Hill toward the White House.
There would be no battle, however. The Civil War had finally come to an end, with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender a month earlier and the armed rebellion nearly extinguished. Rather, the procession was to be a great parade saluting those who had served and honoring those who had died.
“The Grand Review of the Armies,” as it was called, was conceived by President Johnson as a way to honor those who had fought so hard, for so long.
Yet the two-day procession, which was reviewed by Johnson and General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, was not a gleeful celebration. How could it be? More than 620,000 Americans — Union and Confederate — had died in four years of fighting.
One month earlier, just a few blocks from the parade route, President Lincoln had been assassinated. The tribute to those who had served was also an occasion to remember those who had, in Lincoln’s words, given “the last full measure of devotion.”
In the years that followed, the tradition of adorning graves of the fallen coalesced around a single holiday in May that initially was called Decoration Day. We know it today as Memorial Day.
In a sense, the Grand Review of May 23-24, 1865, can be called our nation’s first Memorial Day parade.
Eighty years later, Memorial Day 1945 in the nation’s capital had a similar mood. Germany surrendered a few weeks earlier, ending the war in Europe. Though the end was in sight in the Pacific, battle still raged on Okinawa and in the skies over Japan. With the Japanese surrender that summer, World War II came to a close at the cost of more than 400,000 American lives. The jubilation of war’s end masked a melancholy of mourning for those lost.
Parades across the country marked the end of World War II. In Washington, the men of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team marched along Constitution Avenue to the Ellipse in July 1946 to be reviewed by President Truman. The 442nd consisted of Americans of Japanese ancestry who fought in Europe to prove that they were proud and loyal to their country. Twenty-one men of the 442nd were presented with the Medal of Honor, and nearly 9,500 Purple Hearts were awarded to those killed and wounded in battle.
Among the men marching with the 442nd in that parade was Terry Shima. This year, Mr. Shima will return to Constitution Avenue with dozens of surviving World War II veterans to serve as grand marshals of the National Memorial Day Parade, participating in honor of the 16 million who served and in memory of those who died.
The parade was inaugurated by the American Veterans Center in 2005 after several decades without a parade in Washington to commemorate the armed forces’ most sacred day.
Those of us who planned that first parade also made note that, across the country, many small-town parades were fading away along with the World War II generation that organized them. The parade in Washington was intended to create a truly national event, calling attention to the true meaning of the holiday in the tradition of the Grand Review and the parades that closed World War II.
On Monday, as the National Memorial Day Parade celebrates its 10th anniversary starting at 2 p.m. along Constitution Avenue, we also commemorate other moments that shaped our country’s history: the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the Grand Review, and the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II.
A moving timeline of American military history, the parade seeks to capture the dignity of the day while creating a family-friendly environment to pay tribute to our fallen heroes across the generations. Privately funded and organized by the American Veterans Center, the National Memorial Day Parade is a continuing example of Americans’ desire to ensure that our heroes are always honored, never forgotten. We welcome your attendance Monday afternoon at this special tribute.
• Tim Holbert is executive director of the American Veterans Center, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation that produces the National Memorial Day Parade. To learn more about the parade, visit www.NationalMemorialDayParade.com.