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Remembering Our Fallen Heroes this Memorial Day

Jeff Griffith

“Let their remembrance be as lasting as the land they honored.”

Daniel Webster


On the last Monday of May, Americans observe Memorial Day in honor of the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military.

The earliest observances, then known as Decoration Day, originated in the years following the Civil War. Traditions evolved for a century, until Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971. Although often viewed as the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day has not lost its solemn significance as many Americans observe it by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades.

Origins

Library of Congress

The U.S. Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in American history; its 620,000 service member deaths is roughly equivalent to the combined total of every other war the nation fought through 1945. This unprecedented loss of life required the establishment of a 74-unit national cemetery system, which remains in place to this day.

Nearly every community was touched, and the geographic organization of military units meant some were hit especially hard and all at once. A single charge by the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor lost 27 sons of Litchfield, and more from surrounding towns. Although tens of thousands of soldiers were buried close to the battlefields as unknowns, cemeteries on the home front saw the impact of the war etched in stone.

Consequently, many communities may have initiated memorial remembrances independently, making it difficult to trace where specific traditions originated. Recent research indicates that some of the earliest such ceremonies originated within the Black community of Charleston, S.C., and United States Colored Troops less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. Within years, springtime tributes where the graves of those who fell during the war were decorated with flowers occurred in a number of towns and cities.

Decoration Day

Jennifer Geollnitz

On May 5, 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, called for a National Day of Remembrance on May 30 for the purpose of decorating the graves of those who died in the defense of their country during the Civil War. Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle during the war.

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of Civil War soldiers buried there. In Subsequent years, Northern states began similar commemorative events and by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday.

Even before the war ended, women’s groups across the South gathered to decorate the graves of Confederate dead. In April 1886, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., resolved to commemorate the fallen once a year. Southern states continued to honor their fallen on separate days until after World War I.

History of Memorial Day

Library of Congress

Memorial Day, as Decoration Day later became known as, originally honored only those who had fallen during the Civil War. However, as the United States found itself embroiled in World War I, the holiday evolved to include the commemoration of military personnel who had died in all wars.

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend for federal employees.

There has long been a rivalry of sorts as to which town first began celebrating Memorial Day. Boalsburg, Pa., bases its claim on an 1864 gathering of women who mourned those killed at Gettysburg. Carbondale, Ill., cites an 1886 parade organized by John Logan as the foundation for our national holiday. However, only one town can claim an official designation of the U.S. government. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation, declaring the tiny upstate village of Waterloo, N.Y. as the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day Traditions

Noel Kline

Communities across the nation host parades each year, often involving military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. In the United States, the American Legion has named the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day, reflecting a tradition that began after World War I – and is mirrored in many European and Commonwealth commemorations of Remembrance Day.

Additionally, Memorial Day weekend has unofficially become the beginning of the summer season due to the long holiday weekend. Many celebrate by hosting parties, barbecues and going on weekend trips.

Although the weekend has increasingly become a summer rite of passage, there are some formal rituals that have become engrained with our commemoration.  

  • The American flag should be hung at half-staff until Noon on Memorial Day, then raised to the top.  
  • Congress passed legislation in 2000 encouraging all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time.  
  • The federal government has also used the holiday to honor non-veterans—the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day 1922.

However you choose to commemorate Memorial Day each year, it’s a time for all Americans to pause and remember those who walked before us and bore the cost of our freedom.