Memorial Day History

Memorial Day, an American holiday is observed on the last Monday of May, honors men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.  Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and eventually became an official federal holiday. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades.  Unofficially, at least, it marks the beginning of summer.

The Civil War claimed nearly 600,000 thousand lives, more than any conflict in U.S. history, requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.  By the late 1860s Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month.  “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,” he proclaimed.  The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. 

Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War.  But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. 

For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day.  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 went into effect in 1971.  The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

 

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