Written by: Aiya Madarang
Memorial Day is an important way for our country to honor the brave men and women who died while serving in the US military. Every year, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May; in 2019, Memorial Day falls on May 29. Just as our military has a long and honored history, the history of Memorial Day is well documented and, in many ways, far from simple.
The Civil War (1861-65) was a turning point in US history for several reasons, including inspiring the tradition that would become the Memorial Day holiday. According to the most recent study, the total death count in the war falls between 650,000 and 850,000, making it one of the deadliest wars in American history. The sheer scale of carnage left behind by the war, including the thousands of bodies unaccounted for or shallowly buried, resulted in a concerted effort by the US government to establish the first national cemeteries and properly honor the dead.
Soon, those in mourning began the practice of paying tribute to the fallen every spring, often visiting cemeteries to lay flowers on the graves of loved ones. The month of May, when flowers were in full bloom, proved to be an apt choice for the tradition, which was initially known as “Decoration Day”.
The practice was observed in many communities throughout the north and south as both sides had suffered devastating losses, though for decades only Union soldiers could be honored in the national cemeteries. In the south, the first Decoration Day is said to have taken place in Friendship Cemetery in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866, where flowers were laid on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Women in the south were the main driving force behind keeping the tradition alive; women’s organizations, such as the Ladies’ Memorial Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, were founded to care for cemeteries, organize commemorative ceremonies, and erect monuments in honor of the dead.
The holiday’s origin in the north has been more difficult to trace. General John A. Logan, a Civil War veteran who went on to lead a Union veteran organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation from the White House that would establish May 30, 1868 as the first official Decoration Day. By 1890, the holiday was officially recognized by all the northern states.
About a century later in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that declared Waterloo, New York, to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day, though research has discredited the story of Waterloo as being the first place to observe the holiday.
In spite of this, the south refused to recognize the May 30 date and continued commemorate fallen soldiers separately. It wasn’t until after World War I, when the focus of the holiday shifted from honoring Civil War losses to Americans who died in any war, that the holiday came to be observed on the same day across the country.
The name of the holiday also underwent a gradual shift. Use of the name “Memorial Day” was first recorded in 1882 but wasn’t commonly used until after World War II. It was declared to be the official name by a federal law passed in 1967.
In 1968, Memorial Day was one of four holidays that was moved from its original date to a specific Monday in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Memorial Day was designated to occur on the last Monday of May and has remained so ever since, giving us Memorial Day weekend.
Today, the tradition of honoring those who have sacrificed themselves for our country endures. The United States officially observes the holiday by flying the flag half-mast and recognizing a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. The White House hosts a concert on the west lawn and thousands of Memorial Day parades are held by cities throughout the country.
We recognize Memorial Day every year not only to commemorate fallen loved ones but also as the unofficial beginning of summer and an opportunity to spend time with the loved ones who are still with us, creating memories and new traditions for years to come.