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History of Memorial Day

rows of American flags stand beside cemetery headstones

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.” Gen. John A. Logan

Following the Civil War, the U.S. was a nation in mourning. The war had claimed many lives and Americans felt the need to honor their dead. By 1866, a year after hostilities ended, some communities had already established ceremonies to memorialize fallen soldiers.

While many cities claim to have originated the Memorial Day holiday, in 1966 – 100 years after its first community ceremonies – Waterloo, NY, was given the official title as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

When was the First Memorial Day?

In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Union Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance to “decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”

He called for May 30, 1868, to be set aside as Decoration Day. It has been suggested the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a specific battle, or possibly because flowers would be in bloom throughout the country.

Around 5,000 people attended the first national Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery. James Garfield, a former Union General and sitting Ohio Congressman, gave a speech and participants placed flowers on the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers.

Following the national event, municipalities across the country began organizing memorial events for fallen soldiers. New York State was the first to designate Decoration Day as a legal holiday in 1873. 

When Did Decoration Day Become Memorial Day?

After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to honor soldiers who had fallen in all American conflicts. In 1938, Congress recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday

The name Memorial Day became more popular after World War II, but the holiday went by both names for another two decades. The federal government adopted Memorial Day as the holiday’s official name in 1967.

When is Memorial Day?

If May 30 was originally selected as a day for remembrance, why don’t we continue to observe Memorial Day on this date?

After a push to arrange national holidays to create a long weekend for federal employees, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Since 1971, Memorial Day has been held on the last Monday in May.

How to Observe Memorial Day

Memorial Day is not “celebrated,” it is observed. The origins of Memorial Day are somber. It is a day meant to remember those who have died to protect our freedom. 

On Memorial Day, in cemeteries throughout the country, Americans continue to decorate soldiers’ graves with flowers, wreaths and flags. Military groups march in parades, hold commemorative ceremonies, play “Taps” and organize 21 gun salutes. 

Citizens can observe Memorial Day by flying the American flag, visiting cemeteries and memorials and attending religious services. You can decorate for Memorial Day, attend or participate in a Memorial Day parade, donate money for flowers to place on soldier’s graves, tour a National Park, watch the National Memorial Day Concert or volunteer with a veteran’s organization. 

Americans also are urged to participate in a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3 p.m. (your local time) to take a minute to remember and honor those who have served and died in all American conflicts, both historic and recent.

Memorial Day Activities

Many Americans consider Memorial Day the unofficial kick-off to summer. In addition to picnics and parties, there are other ways to enjoy Memorial Day weekend. 

You can gather with family and friends. Host a backyard barbecue. Plant flowers. Break out your summer clothes. Attend a parade. Enjoy a concert. Go to a movie. Take advantage of Memorial Day sales.

But remember that the true meaning of Memorial Day is to honor those whose lives were sacrificed to defend our country and the freedoms all Americans enjoy.

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