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Memorial Day History

Memorial Day History

Summer thoughts always seem to come to mind when Memorial Day comes around. This holiday to many unofficially marks the beginning of the summer even though summer actually begins in June. Memorial Day is an American holiday that is observed on the last Monday of May. The holiday serves as a day of observance and remembrance for those who have passed while serving in the U.S. military. Traditionally people will visit cemeteries or memorials or attend family gatherings to commemorate those who have passed. This holiday was not always recognized as Memorial Day and did take some time to officially become a federal holiday.

Memorial Day History

Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became a federal holiday in 1971. The Civil War resulted in the death of the most lives in U.S. history than any other conflict. The many deaths from the war resulted in the country’s establishment of its first national cemeteries. During the late 1860s, Americans throughout the country began holding springtime tributes for fallen soldiers. These tributes included prayer recitals and decorating graves with flowers. It is unclear as to where these traditions began, however, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866. Waterloo was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Due to the ever-present decorative spirit, Memorial Day was once known as Decoration Day.

On May 5, 1868, General John A Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of 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,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Decoration Day, however, was not the central holiday for honoring the dead until after World War I.

Memorial Day Evolution & Celebrations

Decoration Day gradually came to be known as Memorial Day as years went on. Memorial Day originally only honored those who were lost while fighting in the Civil War. However, during World War I, the United States found itself in yet another major conflict. Due to World War I, the holiday evolved into a commemoration for all American military personnel who died in all wars. Memorial Day was also still observed on May 30th just as it had been on the first Decoration Day celebration. This date changed in 1968 with Congress passing the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This Act established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. This change went into effect in 1971 and under the same law declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated throughout cities and towns across the United States. Typical celebrations usually include a parade that often incorporates military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Some of the largest parades that take place in the US are in Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. People still also visit cemeteries and memorials to honor those who have lost their lives fighting for their country. Many people will also host parties and barbecues for the day; as for many Memorial Day is the unofficial introduction to the summer.