Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday of May. It was formerly known as Decoration Day and commemorates all men and women who have died in military service for the United States. Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day and it is traditionally seen as the start of the summer season.
1. It Started With The Civil War.
Memorial Day was a response to the unprecedented carnage of the Civil War, in which some 620,000 soldiers on both sides died. The loss of life and its effect on communities throughout the country led to spontaneous commemorations of the dead:
- In 1864, women from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, put flowers on the graves of their dead from the just-fought Battle of Gettysburg. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in a Vicksburg, Mississippi, cemetery.
- Waterloo, New York began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the “birthplace of Memorial Day.”
2. General Logan Made It Official
In April 1866, in Carbondale, Illinois, 219 Civil War veterans marched through town in memory of the fallen to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.
General Logan, the speaker at the Carbondale gathering, also was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868 “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.”
3. It Was First Known As Decoration Day
The holiday was long known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags. The name Memorial Day goes back to 1882, but the older name didn’t disappear until after World War II. Federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name in 1967.
4. The Holiday Is A Franchise
While there are 10 federal holidays created by Congress—including Memorial Day—they apply only to Federal employees and the District of Columbia. Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without being docked a day’s pay.
New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday, in 1873. Most Northern states had followed suit by the 1890s. In 1971, the Monday Holiday Law shifted Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday of the month.
5. Memorial Day Has Its Customs
General Orders No. 11 stated that “in this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed,” but over time several customs and symbols became associated with the holiday.
- It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.
- The World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies. In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who died.” The sale of poppies has supported the work of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
6. There Is Still A Gray Memorial Day
Several Southern states continue to set aside a day for honoring the Confederate dead, which is usually called Confederate Memorial Day. It’s on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, April 26 in Georgia, June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, May 10 in North and South Carolina, January 19 in Texas, and the last Monday in May in Virginia.
7. A Moment Of Silence Each Memorial Day
In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3 p.m. in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because 3 p.m. “is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.”
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