Most Americans celebrate Memorial Day with cook-outs and a three-day weekend.
The official government holiday honors those who died for our country. But how did it begin?
David W. Blight, a history professor and author of a New York Times op-ed, “Forgetting Why We Remember,” said Memorial Day had a simple start.
“At the end of the Civil War (1861-1865), Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern,” he said.
Residents in all communities were asked to decorate the graves of the Confederate and Union soldiers who perished during the war. This kind act of respect became the basis for the now annual Memorial Day observance.
- Memorial Day was first declared “Decoration Day” by General John A. Logan. He designated May 30, 1868, as the first ever day for “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
- During that first observance in 1868, orphaned children of veterans who perished in the Civil War, strew flowers on Union and Confederate graves at Arlington Cemetery following a ceremony and speech by Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and others.
- It wasn’t until after World War I that Americans began honoring all military personnel who lost their lives during any war, not just the Civil War. According to USMemorialDay.org, 1.8 million people have died since 1775 to ensure our freedom.
- Waterloo, N.Y., is the official “Birthplace of Memorial Day,” per a federal government declaration in 1966. The city first held the observance on May 5, 1866.
- Some southern states continue to hold “Confederate Memorial Day” celebrations and similar observances of their own. South Carolina held its annual event on May 10th this year.
- The poppies sold this time of year as a fundraiser for the Veterans of Foreign Wars was inspired by a World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrea. Moina Michael, a teacher, in 1915 successfully campaigned for the symbol as a tribute to veterans.
- Congress, in 1971, officially initiated the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day on the last Monday in May to give federal employees a three-day weekend. That also was the year it became an official federal holiday.
- The U.S. flag is to fly at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day and then raised to the top until sunset.
- In December 2000, Congress and the president created “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” It encourages Memorial Day observances, including a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time to remember those who died defending our nation.
Whatever you do this weekend, please take a moment to reflect on the lives lost in all wars and thank a veteran for the freedoms you have today.
— Shelley Grieshop