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The History of Memorial Day

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Traveleidoscope: The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is coming up and in the United States. That means the unofficial start of summer. But Memorial Day is so much more than a time to fire up the grill and pull out your beach chairs. Here’s the story of how it became a national holiday.

In a Nutshell...

Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States. It honors those who have died serving in the United States military. The holiday is observed every year on the last Monday of May.

The History of the Holiday...

While the origin of the holiday is a bit hard to pin down, some contend that a “memorial day” started (informally) around the American Civil War with people laying flowers on the graves of Civil War Union soldiers. According to a 1906 Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article June 3, 1861, marks the date in the U.S. when the first “memorial day” occurred in Warrington, Virginia. A year later, in 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia are said to have decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers.

A Quick U. S. History Lesson:

Union soldiers fought on the side of non-slave holding states, while Confederate soldiers fought on the side of slave-holding states. The Confederate States of America consisted of 11 U.S. states that left the United States of America somewhere between 1860 and 1861 to form the Confederate States of America which existed from 1861-1865. The Confederate states were comprised of the following U.S. states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. These states were slave-holding states, whose economies were agriculture based and heavily reliant on African American slaves. These states seceded after Abraham Lincoln was elected President with his platform opposing expanding slavery. And so began the U.S. Civil War.

Back to Memorial Day...

Following the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, commemorations became widespread and so, the Federal government began to create national cemeteries to honor the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

In 1868, Major General John A. Logan, a Union general, issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 "for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

Although both Union war dead and Confederate war dead were honored, it was done on different days; however, by the 20th century, those days were merged into one day that honored all who died in military service.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday in order to create a three-day weekend (how convenient and thank you). The change moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May, but it did not actually become a Federal holiday until 1971 (go figure).

Like the origin of the holiday itself, no one is quite sure when the name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. Today, Memorial Day includes parades, speeches, and services at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Other Memorial Day Facts:

  • As the legend goes, May 30 was originally selected as the date of Memorial Day because no battle actually occurred on that day (allegedly).

  • Approximately 620,000 soldiers on both sides died during the Civil War.

  • The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922.

  • You may see people wearing red poppies on Memorial Day. That tradition originated from John McCrae's 1915 poem In Flanders Fields.

  • In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson designated Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

  • In 2000, Congress passed a law (signed by President Clinton) that requires all Americans to stop what they are doing at 3pm on Memorial Day to remember and to honor those who have died serving the United States.

  • The U.S. flag is supposed to be flown at half-mast until noon, and then raised to full mast until sunset on Memorial Day.

  • The Indianapolis 500 began on May 30, 1911 (I know, weird, right?).

And that's the story of Memorial Day! So get out your grill and your beach chairs (and remember those who gave their lives for our country)!

Photo of poppy flower by by Victoria Tronina on Unsplash
Photo by Victoria Tronina on Unsplash

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