Memorial Day on May 30 conjures images of hamburgers, hot dogs, swimming pools, and summertime for many Americans. But the last Monday in May serves, most importantly, as a time to honor those who died while fighting in the U.S. Armed Forces. It’s a holiday steeped in somber American history and tradition. The day actually began as “Decoration Day,” following the Civil War, when mourners placed flowers on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Yes, Memorial Day has also come to signify the “unofficial” start of summer, but let’s remember the heroes who made it all possible.
HISTORY OF MEMORIAL DAY
The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House on April 9. Over 620,000 soldiers died in the four-year conflict. General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) would eventually select May 30, 1868, as a day to pay tribute to the fallen:
“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…”
Logan apparently chose May 30 because flowers would be in bloom all over the country. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. States passed proclamations, and the Army and Navy adopted rules for proper observance at their facilities.
The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance — about 5,000 people. Small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition still followed at many national cemeteries today. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.
By 1890, each Northern state had made Decoration Day an official holiday. But this was not the case in the South, where states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after the First World War.
The May 30 date held for decades. But, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change took place in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
HOW TO OBSERVE MEMORIAL DAY
- Pay your respects
Lay flowers on the grave of a family member or friend who died while serving. If you don’t personally know any fallen soldiers, visit a local cemetery anyway. After all, they made the ultimate sacrifice for you.
- Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance
By doing so, you’ll be joining millions of Americans in national unity to honor Memorial Day for what it truly is — a day to remember those who laid down their lives in service of their country and its citizens.
- Fly the flag
If you have an American flag at home, be sure to fly it at half-mast until noon, then raise it to full mast for the rest of the day. The practice of lowering and then raising the flag has been observed for over 100 years to symbolize America’s persistence in the face of loss.
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