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The History of Memorial Day and Remembering Those Who Served

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day. Saluting America's fallen heroes

By Patrick FerriolPublished 12 months ago 3 min read
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The History of Memorial Day and Remembering Those Who Served
Photo by Gaurav Pikale on Unsplash

Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering and honoring people who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The holiday is observed on the last Monday of May. However, the origins of this day of remembrance stretch back to the years following the Civil War.

The Civil War and Decoration Day

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, emerged from the ashes of the Civil War, which ended in 1865. The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history, necessitating the establishment of the country's first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, various communities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo, which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, was chosen because it hosted an annual community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

The Establishment of an Official Holiday

Decoration Day, as it was initially known, was first widely observed on May 30, 1868. The date was chosen by General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, as it was not the anniversary of a battle. On that day, he delivered a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide; he was instrumental in organizing the first widespread and coordinated events.

During the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.

The Evolution to Memorial Day

While Decoration Day initially honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War, after World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The term "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law went into effect in 1971.

Modern Observances

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated across the United States with ceremonies, parades, and moments of silence. The holiday is also marked by the tradition of volunteers placing an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with the holiday since 1911. A less well-known tradition is the National Moment of Remembrance, established by Congress in 2000, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

Memorial Day offers an opportunity for Americans to honor the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in service to their country. It serves as a solemn reminder of the cost of freedom and the valor of those who defended it.

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About the Creator

Patrick Ferriol

I am a loving husband and father. I'm an entrepreneur and an aspiring DIY enthusiast. I share my journey through content while inspiring others along the way.

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