The last Monday of May is Memorial Day, an American holiday that honors men and women who died during their services in the U.S. military. It was first known as Decoration Day. Here is a brief history of how Decoration Day evolved to today’s Memorial Day.
It all started with the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). They dedicated the day on May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, for the nation to decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers with flowers. Later on, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that the Decoration Day should be observed on May 30.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ web page, the first large observance was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Before that, many local springtime tributes to the Civil War fallen soldiers were held in various places. One of the first was in Columbus, Miss., on April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh. Because they felt sad for the bare and neglected Union soldiers’ graves nearby, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well despite they were the enemy.
Many cities of the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day and a stone in a Carbondale, Ill., cemetery documents the historical event of the first Decoration Day ceremony that it actually took place there on April 29, 1866. Carbondale was Gen. Logan’s wartime home. However, the official birthplace of Memorial Day was declared in 1966. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, an act of Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday and it was placed on the last Monday in May.
In December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance to ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten. The commission’s goal is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by inspiring and organizing tributes in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance. Memorial Day is still often referred by many as Decoration Day. Many Americans observe the Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades.
As our 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison once said in his speech, “I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.” Let’s remember to pause wherever we are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember those heroes who have died in their services for our nation and protected our freedom.
Reference: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs