Officially observed on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day honors our nation’s fallen soldiers and marks the unofficial start of the summer season. Back in 1968, an act of Congress moved this holiday from May 30 to its current day to ensure a three-day weekend for federal employees – a point of contention among groups concerned that the holiday’s true purpose has been overshadowed by enthusiasm around a long weekend and summer kickoff. While we aren’t suggesting that anyone forego family barbecues, pool and beachside parties or watching the Indianapolis 500 this weekend, we would like to share a brief overview of how the Memorial Day tradition evolved, and pay respect to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation:
It originated in the years following the Civil War: By the time it ended in spring of 1865, the Civil War had claimed more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history. In the years following, mourners in various cities and towns began a springtime ritual of visiting the burial sites of loved ones to say prayers and decorate their graves with flowers, flags and wreaths. While the location of where the tradition began is widely disputed, the town of Waterloo, New York is officially credited as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
First known as Decoration Day: On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that the upcoming date of May 30 was to be a national day of remembrance “designated 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, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Referred to as “Decoration Day,” the date of May 30 was chosen because it was not an anniversary of any particular battle. On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 plus mourners decorated the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Among the participants were two future presidents: Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield.
Transition to a state holiday: In the years that followed the first Decoration Day celebration, many Union states recreated the tradition. By 1890, it was recognized in all of the northern states. However, southern states refused to recognize the holiday until after World War I, when it was extended to being a day of remembrance for all of those who had died in military service to the country. In fact, several of the southern states created a separate holiday to commemorate those who died fighting for the Confederacy.
The term Memorial Day emerges: While people began referring to “Memorial Day” as early as the 1880s, the holiday was still officially called Decoration Day for some 100 years. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act signed into law the observance of certain holidays on Mondays. Under this legislation, which took effect in 1971, Memorial Day was a declared a federal holiday to be held on the last Monday of May.
How to pay tribute to those who gave their lives: Although the men and women who have served in the U.S. military represent just a small fraction of the population today, we are proud to have many of these veterans among our members and are deeply grateful for their service. For those of us civilians who may want guidance on how to observe the holiday in a meaningful way, helpful information on this topic can be found at http://www.usmemorialday.org/observe.htm. And all Americans are encouraged to pause for the National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time Monday for a moment of silence or to listen to “Taps.”