History of Memorial Day

by A-Badgero

The National VA Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio dates to 1867 when it was established as a final resting place for veterans who died while living at the Central Branch National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Photograph by Mac McMeans & LensPassion.com

Memorial Day is an American Holiday that honors the men and women who died while serving the U.S. Military. Originally named Decoration Day, this celebration is held on the last Monday of May each year.

It can be difficult to trace back the exact origins of Memorial Day as many different regions claim to be the first to have started the tradition. Many communities began holding their own independent events and practices for honoring those who died while serving in the United States. One of the first known tributes to those who died in the Civil War occurred in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866 when a group of women decorated all the graves of Confederate and Union Soldiers who fell in battle at Shiloh. Though the Union soldiers were the enemy, the women were disturbed by the sight of their bare graves and it was obvious that across America the people felt a need to honor their heroic dead.

On May 5, 1862 General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that there was to be a nationwide day of remembrance later in the month and May 30, 1868 was a designated day where graves of comrades were decorated with flowers. It is believed that General Logan chose May 30th because no particular battle had been fought on this day and also that flowers were in bloom throughout the country at this time.

Originally Decoration Day was held to honor only the soldiers lost during the Civil War however, after World War l the event evolved to include the commemoration of all American personnel lost at war. Several southern states have an additional day where they honor those lost in the Confederate war.

In May 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day since Waterloo had become the first state to officially recognize the holiday in 1873. In 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Today, many of the traditions and meanings of Memorial Day have been forgotten as the day has become part of a three-day holiday weekend known as the unofficial start of summer. In fact a poll by The National WWII Museum found that 80% of the people surveyed confess to having “little, or only some” knowledge of the military holiday. Proper flag etiquette for the day has been forgotten by many; the flag should be displayed at half staff until noon and at full staff from noon to sunset. Many people are under the impression that it is a day to honor the dead in general and not specifically those who passed while in service to the country. Memorial Day parades were a tradition practiced by many towns in the past but today the number of parades are dwindling.

There are still organizations and volunteers who go out of their way to ensure this important occasion is celebrated and not forgotten. Each Thursday before Memorial Day the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry go to the Arlington National Cemetery and carefully place over 260,000 small American flags on the graves there. Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St.Louis began placing flags on the graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 1951 and continue to do so to this day. In 1998 Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts began placing a candle at all of the grave sites of soldiers the Saturday before Memorial Day in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

The “National Moment of Remembrance” was implemented in December of 2000 which asks for all Americans to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, ceasing whatever it is they are doing at 3 p.m. to pause for a moment of silence or while listening to Taps.

It is important to ensure that the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten. The original idea behind Memorial Day was to properly honor the dead by contemplating the cause for which they fought – freedom. The men and women who bravely fought for the freedoms we enjoy today deserve at very least one day of true recognition.

Read more:

Memorial Day | History.com

Memorial Day History | Department of Veterans Affairs

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