Memorial Day

This day is designated as a day of remembrance for all those who died in the service of the United States of America.  Originally called Decoration Day, this holiday has been observed by many Americans since the Civil War.   It did not become a federal holiday until 1971, and is observed by many as the unofficial beginning of summer.

The American Civil War touched nearly every family in the nation and claimed more lives than any conflict in US history.  Because of all these fallen soldiers, there was a great need for national cemeteries, especially for those who did not have land where there were family plots.  By the late 1860s, many towns were holding springtime tributes to fallen soldiers and decorating their graves with flags and flowers.  Approximately 25 cities, including Richmond, VA, Boalsburg, PA and Carbondale, IL, claim to be the home of the first Memorial day.  However, it was decreed by Lyndon Johnson in May 1966 that Waterloo, NY was the official birthplace of the holiday, celebrating it first on May 5, 1866.  There is a rivalry with Columbus, MS, which held an event to honor the dead of the battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866.  The ladies there decorated the graves of the Confederate soldiers who fell there, but noticed the Union graves were bare.  In the spirit of charity, they placed flowers on those graves at well.  

In 1868, General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order No. 11.  This read in part, “The 30th of May, 1868, is 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.”  He said he chose May 30 because it was not the anniversary of any specific battle.  On the first official Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, General James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery to a crowd of 5,000, who had come to honor those buried there. These were mainly children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR.  After the speech, the went through the cemetery putting flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, praying and singing hymns.  This was a tradition that caught on, and by the turn of the 20th century most places had ceremonies on May 30.  However, there was some controversy as many Southern states had separate holidays for honoring Confederate dead.  Many of these states did not sync up with the national tradition until after World War I.

Memorial Day Poster from 1917

Although the holiday original began as a day to honor the dead of the Civil War, it morphed into a day to remember all service men and women who gave their lives in war.  This especially became true as the United States entered World War I.  Memorial Day was consistently celebrated on May 30, until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.  It was also declared a federal holiday.  This change went into effect in 1971 and gave all federal employees a three day weekend.

Along with tending the graves of service members who passed, many families also tend the graves of all family members who have passed.  Cities also have parades with veterans’ organizations and military personnel.  The largest parades in the US are in Chicago, New York and Washington DC.  Since it is the unofficial beginning of summer, families also celebrate by having the traditional first barbecue of the year.

To all service persons, past and present, we thank and honor you for your service.  Welcome to summer!

ER