Memorial Day: A Brief History

Many people look forward to Memorial Day weekend.  It has become the unofficial beginning of the summer vacation season and a much-appreciated long weekend for some people after a long winter and spring. The three-day weekend provides the opportunity to “celebrate” the whole time with picnics, parties, and family gatherings.  But the truth is, Memorial Day is a solemn “holiday”. 

Here is a brief history of how Memorial Day came to be:

This American holiday is observed annually on the last Monday of May to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.  It was originally called “Decoration Day” when it was begun in the years following the Civil War.  It became an official federal holiday in 1971. 

The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history.  Because of this, the country’s first national cemeteries were established.  By the late 1860s, Americans in many towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to the fallen soldiers. They decorated their graves with flowers and recited prayers.

Waterloo, NY was designated the birthplace of Memorial Day because beginning on May 5, 1866, it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated graves with flowers and flags.

The leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan, decided on May 5, 1868, that “The 30th of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” He called it Decoration Day and chose the date because it did not coincide with the anniversary of any particular battle.  

General James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery on the first Decoration Day, where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. 

Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day. While it originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War, after WWI, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.  It continued to be observed annually on May 30th for decades, but in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to establish Memorial Day as the last Monday in May so that there could be a three-day weekend for federal workers. The change went into effect in 1971.  The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

So, while it’s great to have a long weekend, and fun to celebrate the unofficial start of summer vacation season, take some time this Memorial Day to remember and honor those who lost their lives to save our freedom.

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