When one hears about Memorial Day, it conjures up fun time activities such as barbeques or picnics, going to the beach, or shopping the Memorial Day sales at the mall. Its history is a completely different story dating back to the post-Civil War era.
After the Civil War ended only three years later, it officially established Decoration Day in 1868. This is the day to decorate the graves of the war dead “with the choicest flowers of springtime,” according to Major General John A. Logan. This general was head of the Union veterans’ organization that would declare Decoration Day on May 30th, since flowers are fully in bloom nationwide. May 30th was also the chosen day, since it didn’t conflict with the anniversary of other battles.
Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. held the first observance. General James Garfield gave a speech with 5,000 attending that included widows and orphans. Those particular attendees helped decorate the graves on that day with an addition of placing small American flags. Over 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers and sailors were entombed at Arlington at the time.
At the start the South refused to celebrate Decoration Day due to it being a Northern-based holiday. Instead, Confederate Memorial Day is still celebrated in certain Southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, and Texas. At the end of the 19th century Decoration Day became Memorial Day. It wasn’t until after World War I when this national holiday began to honor those who died in all American wars as far back as the Revolutionary War.
In 1971 Congress declared Memorial Day, through the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, a federal holiday and a three-day weekend for federal employees. It was then moved from its original date of May 30th to always being the last Monday in May. Many critics and Memorial Day purists, past and present, felt making it a three-day weekend would create the eventual loss of the holiday’s true significance.
Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii has reintroduced a bill since 1989 to move Memorial Day back to its fixed date of May 30. Some cities and towns still host parades featuring military personnel and veterans’ organizations such as New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. However, other Memorial Day celebrations in smaller towns have since dwindled.
What has remained intact since its inception in 1868 is the Memorial Day Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. There are crowds of 5,000 that still gather. It’s the same amount of people as the first ceremony. They now come to see the President or Vice President give a speech and lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flowers are still brought in and decorated by family members and others. The tradition of placing small American flags is still honored, this time at over 260,000 graves.
In December 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed to emphasize the meaning of Memorial Day. This is meant for all Americans to “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.'” It’s to be observed on Memorial Day at 3 p.m. local time.