The History of Memorial Day

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In America, the iconic holiday that unofficially begins the summer season in the eyes of many people is Memorial Day. This warm weather holiday is celebrated by traditional summer activities such as outdoor barbecues and swimming or boating. While many people enjoy this holiday because it gives them an opportunity for a relaxing day with friends and family, there is a much bigger meaning behind Memorial Day. A few years after the end of the Civil War, Americans celebrated Decoration Day as a way to honor their friends and relatives who had passed away during military service. By 1971, Memorial Day became an official American holiday that is celebrated on the the last Monday in May.

Following the Civil War, the number of American lives lost was astonishing. There were actually more casualties from the Civil War than in any other American war before or since. As early as the 1860s, many communities across the country were holding smaller-scale days of remembrance for their fallen comrades. These days of honoring and remembrance were not unified across the country, however. Although many different towns across the United States observed these early ancestors of our modern Memorial Day, there was one town that hosted a particularly noteworthy celebration. Waterloo, New York was given the honor of officially being the town that begat this holiday of remembrance. Each year, the town of Waterloo was essentially shut down while it’s citizens spent the day visiting gravesite of fallen soldiers and placing flowers and flags on the memorials. This town was credited with first organizing this holiday on May 5th, 1866. The traditions that began in Waterloo were the predecessors to the modern holiday that we enjoy during the summer as Americans.

Simultaneously, other towns across the country besides Waterloo were taking part in days of remembrance. Veterans of the Civil War who had fought for the Northern forces were represented in the 1860s by a man named General John A. Logan. General Logan proposed that on May 5th, 1862, the nation should pause for the entire day and pay respect to all of the lives that had been lost in the domestic conflict that was the Civil War. By 1868, General Logan had defined the holiday a bit more, and he requested that all Americans adorns the gravesite of fallen soldiers in order to show their appreciation for their services and ultimate sacrifice. Eventually, he requested that the holiday be celebrated on May 30th, because there was no specific battle associated with this date. This holiday was deemed Decoration Day, and on the first one, General James Garfield spoke to the public at Arlington National Cemetery. About 5,000 were in attendance to listen and decorate the gravesides of 20,000 soldiers. By 1890, most Northern states had adopted the tradition of Decoration Day, but the Southern states were somewhat reluctant to make this an official state holiday. However, many Southern communities still set aside a specific day of remembrance.

Eventually, Decoration Day became more commonly known as Memorial Day. Of course, this holiday was designed to honor Civil War veterans who had lost their lives in conflict. When America became involved in World War I, the holiday was expanded so that American soldiers in all wars could be honored. Until 1971, Memorial Day was still observed on May 30th, but the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed which gave us the three-day weekend that we enjoy today. Each year at 3:00 PM, there is a national moment of silence for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice while fighting for this great country.