- Memorial Day, initially known as Decoration Day, pays homage to all the soldiers who lost their lives while serving the nation.
- The holiday roots back to the Civil War era, with it being declared a national holiday through an act of Congress in 1971.
- The day is distinct from Veterans Day as it solely honors those who died in service, while Veterans Day recognizes all who served.
- Local observances during the Civil War formed the initial foundations of Memorial Day.
- Several places in both the North and South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, with Waterloo, New York, being officially declared as such.
The True Meaning of Memorial Day
Contrary to popular belief, Memorial Day is not simply a long weekend that signifies the onset of summer, a time for road trips, or a day for sales. The real essence of the national holiday is much more solemn, dedicated to paying tribute to the military personnel who lost their lives while in service to the United States. The holiday initially termed Decoration Day, primarily honors soldiers who perished during their service to the nation.
Delving into History: The Origins of Memorial Day
Tracing back its roots to the Civil War era, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday through an act of Congress in 1971. The origins of the holiday can be traced back to local observances for soldiers with neglected gravesites during the Civil War. The first observance of what would evolve into Memorial Day, some historians argue, took place in Charleston, S.C., at the site of a horse racing track that Confederates had converted into a prison holding Union prisoners.
In Charleston, Blacks organized a burial of deceased Union prisoners, constructed a fence around the site, and then held an event on May 1, 1865, including a parade featuring Blacks who fought in the Civil War, spiritual readings, songs, and picnicking. This poignant event marked the beginning of a tradition that would eventually evolve into the national holiday we observe today. A commemorative marker was erected at the site in 2010, in honor of this historic event.
Decoration Days: The Path to Memorial Day
A significant observance that played a role in shaping the current form of Memorial Day took place in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866. Women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers who died in the battle at Shiloh with flowers, thereby giving the holiday its original name, Decoration Day.
On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, the tradition of placing flowers on veterans’ graves continued through the establishment of Decoration Day by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. The first major observance under this designation, overseen by General Ulysses S. Grant, attracted a crowd of about 5,000 people at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 30, 1873.
The ceremony involved the orphaned children of soldiers and sailors killed during the war placing flowers and small American flags atop both Union and Confederate graves throughout the entire cemetery. This tradition continues to thrive today in cemeteries of all sizes across the country, as communities come together to honor fallen heroes.
The Evolution of Memorial Day
Until World War I, Decoration Day primarily honored soldiers of the Civil War. However, the significance of the day expanded after World War I to honor all Americans who’ve served and lost their lives in any American conflict.
The birthplace of Memorial Day has been a subject of debate, with at least 25 places in the North and South claiming to have originated the observance. Some states that lay claim to the origins include Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. However, in 1966, U.S. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson officially declared Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day.
Waterloo had formerly honored its local veterans on May 5, 1866, by closing businesses and lowering flags at half-staff. This act of respect ultimately earned the community the distinguished title of Memorial Day’s birthplace, further cementing the day’s importance in the American calendar.
Understanding the Difference: Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day
Despite both holidays paying respect to U.S. Veterans, Memorial Day and Veterans Day serve distinct purposes. Veterans Day, initially known as “Armistice Day,” was established in 1926 to commemorate all those who had served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. The day, observed on Nov. 11, signifies the Armistice that ended combat in World War I in 1918.
Over time, particularly after World War II, the purpose of Armistice Day broadened, and in 1954, its name changed to Veterans Day to honor those who served in all American wars. Memorial Day, on the other hand, focuses solely on honoring all those who’ve died while serving their country.
The Timing of Memorial Day: A Bloom for the Fallen
The date for celebrating Memorial Day is believed to have been influenced by Illinois U.S. Representative John A. Logan. As a staunch defender of the Union, Logan suggested that Memorial Day should occur when flowers across the country were in full bloom. In 1868, he issued General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a memorial day for decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.
The date was made a holiday in the District of Columbia through an act of Congress in 1888. Nowadays, Memorial Day is observed as the last Monday of May, ensuring a long weekend for modern-day Americans to reflect on the sacrifices made by brave men and women for the nation’s freedom.
The National Moment of Remembrance
In 2000, The National Moment of Remembrance Act, which encourages all to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence, was signed into law by Congress and the President. This act created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, reinforcing the true significance of the day.
Memorial Day isn’t merely a day off work or a signal of the start of summer. It is a time to remember the heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It is a day that invites us all, as American citizens, to pause, reflect, and honor the men and women who gave their lives to protect our freedom.