A Brief History of Memorial Day

Many of us look forward to Memorial Day because it means a day off work or school and time spent sitting by the pool while enjoying a barbecue with friends and family. However, the historical reason for this holiday marks something much more important than a three-day weekend.

Currently, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for all Americans who have died while serving in the country’s armed forces. However, the holiday went through many changes before becoming the holiday we know it as today. In fact, Memorial Day first started to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War. 

Decoration Day

Originally, Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day, and it was a time for families of fallen soldiers to decorate the 600,000 Civil War graves with flowers, wreaths and flags.

Historians are unsure about where the holiday originated from, but many cities claim to be the birthplace of Decoration Day. These include

  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Waterloo, New York
  • Columbus, Georgia

A major part of this uncertainty is that in the years following the Civil War, Memorial Day celebrations were inconsistent across the country. This was especially so in the North and South.

In May of 1868, General John A. Logan of the Union issued a decree that May 30th should become the nationwide day of commemoration for soldiers killed in the Civil War. Logan said that on this “Decoration Day”, Americans would lay flowers and decorate the graves of the fallen, “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

Why May 30th?

The Civil War officially ended April 9, 1865, so why did officials choose to set Decoration Day over a month later on May 30th?

Historians don’t know the exact reason, but some speculate that Logan chose May 30th to ensure that all of the flowers laid on graves would be in full bloom. Others believe that May 30th was the only day that wasn’t already the anniversary of a Civil War battle. 

Regardless of the reasoning, May 30th was not the official day for Memorial Day for too long after Logan’s decree. 

Memorial Day Becomes a Federal Holiday

After Logan’s declaration, Americans across the country began embracing Decoration Day. Many states held a Decoration Day ceremony, and over 5,000 people attended the ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery.

For years, the holiday was used to only commemorate those killed in the Civil War. 

This changed whenever America entered World War I. At this time, citizens began commemorating soldiers who were killed in all wars.

Memorial Day became the holiday that we all recognize in 1968 when Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act. This act stated that Memorial Day would fall on the last Monday in May instead of May 30th.

This ensured that every Memorial Day would create a three-day weekend. 

Although Memorial Day is now an unofficial start of summer for many, it will always serve as an important day of remembrance to honor all of those who have given their lives for our country.

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Paul Stella

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