May 22, 2019
Memorial Day holds a unique place in our country as a cherished patriotic observance and the unofficial start of summer. While many Americans will celebrate the weekend with cook-outs, parades, and getaways, it's helpful to revisit how this important commemoration began.
The tradition of honoring those who died while serving in the military has ancient roots. Both the Greeks and Romans held annual days of remembrance for loved ones, including soldiers. In Athens, public funerals and processions for fallen soldiers were held after each battle. One of the first known public tributes to war dead was in 431 B.C., for the sacrifice and valor of those killed in the Peloponnesian Wars.
In the United States, the tradition began just after the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate soldiers' graves were decorated sporadically around the country. Three weeks after the surrender of the Confederate Army, on May 1, 1865, over one thousand recently freed slaves, regiments of black Union soldiers, and white citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, entered a former prison camp nearby to consecrate the grounds as a burial site for the Union dead.
Having been inspired by these observances, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, a leader of northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance called Decoration Day to be held on the 30th. That day, more than 27 states held a ceremony. General James Garfield spoke at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
Decoration Day caught on quickly. By 1890 northern states had made Decoration Day an official state holiday, while southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days. For the next five decades, the holiday was used to commemorate those killed just in the Civil War. America's entry into World War I expanded the tradition to include those killed in all wars, and took on particular meaning with the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1882 the name gradually changed to Memorial Day and became common right after World War II. Memorial Day was observed on May 30th until the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 moved it to the last Monday in May.
Did You Know …
General John Logan chose May 30th as the date of Decoration Day because it wasn't the anniversary of any particular battle, although some historians believe it was to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.