On September 10th, 1919 an army marched down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Roughly 25,000 uniformed men led by a legendary general tramped along one of the city’s main thoroughfares as scores of people looked on and cheered.
The marchers were all men of the American Expeditionary Forces with their commander, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, at their head. And after serving in the brutal combat of the world’s deadliest conflict thus far, they had finally come home. It would later be known as the first ever Veterans Day Parade, although the date would change and the very concept of Veterans Day was a few decades off. But what is today an annual event celebrating our nation’s veterans with all the pomp, solemnity, and excitement they deserve traces its roots back to that day in 1919.
Celebrating the Armistice
When the guns of World War One at last fell silent at 11:00am on November 11th, 1918, no one in the trenches or at home in the dozens of countries who had sent their armies to the front doubted the momentousness of the occasion. But there was more shock than celebration at the start of the Armistice. After so many years of ceaseless warfare, the idea that it ended at last and so suddenly was more a source of awe than jubilation.
But by the fall of 1919, most of the troops had finally returned home and the world was ready to celebrate at last. The Treaty of Versailles, officially ending the war, was signed in June and the reality of peace’s return to the globe had sunk in. America wanted to express their jubilation and appreciation for the two million of their fellow citizens who served in the war. And the first ones who got the chance to do so, at least en masse, were those tens of thousands of New Yorkers who hailed Pershing and his soldiers as they walked or rode the five miles from 107th Street to Washington Square Park.
Seven days later, Pershing led another march of his fellow WWI veterans through the nation’s capital, along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. He followed that with a speech to Congress, which had recently awarded him the rank of General of the Armies of the United States. The equivalent of a six star general, Pershing remains the only man to be promoted to such a rank during his lifetime. The only other man to receive it, albeit posthumously, was George Washington. Needless to say, it was a high honor in recognition of Pershing’s diligent and courageous service in the Great War. And a momentous part in the greater air of celebration aimed at all the Americans who had courageously served under him.
The Evolution of Veterans Day
A noble precedent of celebrating America’s veterans as a nation was set over those joyous days in 1919. Less than a month after the D.C. parade, President Woodrow Wilson publicly recognized November 11th, 1919, the one year anniversary fighting’s end, as Armistice Day. In 1938, Congress made it a federal holiday. And in 1954, to reflect the millions of men and women who had served in defense of the United States in the conflicts since the end of WWI, the holiday was changed to Veterans Day. Whatever the minor changes to name and scope, the parades kept marching each and every year. And so they continue today, in small towns and big cities, up main streets and down Fifth Avenue, giving us all a chance to salute those Americans who were called upon to don the uniforms of our armed forces.