Robin Bartlett

The Origins of Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, we honor those that have fought for the American concept. Men and Women that have sacrificed so much in order to defend the ideals that have made us a great nation.

— Kamala Harris

The tragedy of the hard-fought Civil War was the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers over the course of four long years. Soon after the war’s conclusion, veterans, and family members in both the North and the South began decorating graves of the fallen with flowers. Memorial Day was officially established as a national public holiday in 1868 by General John A. Logan, head of a group of Union veterans. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day–named for the decoration of soldiers’ graves–but the name gradually changed until it officially became Memorial Day in 1967.

The event gradually grew into an American tradition. From 1868 to 1970, Memorial Day was celebrated every year on May 30, not the last Monday of May as we do today. Some believe this date was chosen because no major battles had occurred on that day; others believe it was chosen because flowers in gardens throughout the United States would be in full bloom.

On May 30, 1868, the first official ceremony recognizing Decoration Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery and flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. The ceremony was presided over by General Ulysses S. Grant.

World War I saw the deaths of more than 116,000 Americans. To honor their sacrifice the name was changed to Memorial Day. A new tradition was established, that of wearing a red poppy and the reading of the poem “In Flanders Field”. Finally, in May 1968, Memorial Day was recognized as an official federal holiday along with Washington’s Birthday in February, Labor Day in September, Columbus Day in October and Veterans Day in November. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was added to the list in 1980.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 provided for three-day federal holidays and are often celebrated with parades and picnics. Memorial Day and four other holidays were moved to Mondays for the sake of creating three-day weekends. These weekends have transitioned into efforts to boost the American economy through travel and retail store celebrations. Thus, Memorial Day has become the unofficial start of the summer sales and celebration season.

Memorial Day is not the same as Veteran’s Day, celebrated on November 11th. That day is reserved to acknowledge the contributions of all service men and women throughout history, while Memorial Day celebrates those who died while serving in uniform. Armed Forces Day is a separate date and honors those who are currently serving.

Memorial Day has sparked a number of different American traditions:

Flags are to be raised in the morning to full-staff and then slowly lowered to half-staff in recognition of the men and women who have fallen in the line of duty. At noon, flags are to be raised to full staff to honor all who have served in the armed forces.

The President of the United States always places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A moment of silence is to be observed at 3 PM to pay tribute to America’s fallen soldiers.

The running of the Indianapolis 500, America’s most famous car race, takes place on Memorial Day. The Coca Cola 600 NASCAR race joined the celebration making Memorial Day Weekend one of the biggest racing events in America.

Retail and online stores across the country have jumped on the Memorial Day bandwagon offering discounts with sales promotions rivaling “Black Friday” that precedes the Christmas selling season.

For a summary of the Origins of Memorial Day, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.


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