Origin and History of Memorial Day

Origin and History of Memorial Day

 

Memorial Day Crosses

Memorial Day Crosses

Memorial Day, the holiday in America where the nation remembers and honors the dead of all of our wars, is designated by Federal law as the last Monday in May.  While the nation’s military dead had been so honored in local and state observances for decades, the official name of the holiday was designated as “Memorial Day” in 1967.  Prior to this, it had been called variously both Decoration Day and Memorial Day.

While the post-Civil War tradition of honoring the war dead had begun in both the North and the South as early as 1866, the official and national decoration of graves at military cemeteries began a scant three years after the close of the American Civil War.  On May 5, 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization of Union soldiers declared that May 30 of that year would be Decoration Day, when the graves of the Civil War dead would be decorated with flowers.  The first Decoration Day observance took place at Arlington National Cemetery, and was attended by General Ulysses Grant and many veterans and their families.  The 5,000 people who attended that first memorial Decoration Day at Arlington placed fresh flowers and miniature American flags on the graves, a tradition that continues to this day.

Photo of the first Decoration Day (Memorial Day), at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1868

Photo of the first Decoration Day (Memorial Day), at Arlington National Cemetery, May 30, 1868

This tradition of honoring the war dead grew, and by the late 1800s, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the United States. Many state legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and the Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at military and naval bases.

 

As Major General John A. Logan proclaimed when his Grand Army of the Republic proclaimed the first Decoration Day in 1868:

 “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. 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.”

 

American Military Grave at Normandy

American Military Grave at Normandy

While the Memorial Day holiday at the end of May is considered the unofficial start of Summer, with millions of Americans taking an extended weekend for trips, camping, barbecuing, and other fun, mostly outdoor, recreational activities, to help the public remember the real reason for the holiday, in 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

 

From 1775 to the present (or, in other words, from the American Revolutionary War to the current war in Afghanistan), a total of over 1,300,000 American military personnel have died fighting America’s wars.  This figure also included the Confederate dead from the Civil War.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) Cartoon in Harpers Weekly Decoration Day, May 30, 1871

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) Cartoon in Harpers Weekly Decoration Day, May 30, 1871

 

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