The Interesting History Behind Memorial Day

Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May every year, and is a time to remember and honor the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives in service to their country. Unlike Armed Forces Day or Veterans Day, which is a time to give thanks to those service members still with us, Memorial Day is a somber holiday held in remembrance of the fallen.

Much less is it the beginning of summer, a time for barbecues or shopping sales. While much of society takes the three day weekend to enjoy warm weather and begin vacations, Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the lives lost and sacrifices made to give us the freedom we enjoy today.

The origins of Memorial Day date back to the Civil War, but it was not until 1971 that it officially became a federal holiday. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day. The wearing and use of poppies on Memorial Day began after World War I. In fact, while millions of Americans celebrate Memorial Day each year by attending parades, visiting cemeteries or memorials and other activities, few people know the full history of the nation’s holiday.

Here is a brief history of Memorial Day, dating back to its origins, and some interesting facts that helped shape it into the holiday we observe now.

DoD/Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, U.S. Navy, and his wife Deborah honor American dead at Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial in Waregem, Belgium.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, national cemeteries were established to bury the overwhelming number of casualties — the highest of any U.S. war — including Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In 1868, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared Decoration Day to be observed on May 30 around the country. At Arlington National Cemetery, officials including Ulysses S. Grant and James Garfield led the ceremony and then volunteers decorated more than 20,000 graves of soldiers buried there.

The practice of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers and wreaths is the reason it was called Decoration Day. The practice continued around the country, with national and local observances held to honor those who died during the Civil War. Following World War I, however, the day changed to honor all fallen service members of all wars.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae served in Europe during WWI, and while on the front lines he wrote a poem titled “In Flanders Fields,” which described poppy flowers growing on soldiers’ graves. The poem quickly spread around the world and the poppy came to symbolize both the bloodshed of the war and a remembrance of the fallen. The poppy became the official flower of The American Legion, and has since been used as a symbol to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla

Numerous towns around the country claimed to have been the first to observe Memorial Day, dating back to 1866. Those included towns in both the northern states as well as in the south were the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers were decorated by local citizens. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson recognized Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The first ceremony was held there on May 5, 1866 and continued as a community observance since.

Most Memorial Day/Decoration Day ceremonies were held on May 30 for several decades, including the first held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who was the head of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans organization, decided on May 30 because the date did not coincide with any major battle. At that ceremony, Congressman (and later President) James A. Garfield said, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which established Memorial Day as a federal holiday set the last Monday in May as its annual date. Then in 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed “to reclaim Memorial Day as the sacred and noble event that that day is intended to be,” rather than the festive, commercial holiday that it has become. That act asks all Americans to pause for a moment of silence and prayer at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day “to honor the men and women of the United States who died in the pursuit of freedom and peace.”

Listen to In Flanders Fields recited by Leonard Cohen in the video below.

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