Also known as
annually on May 30th (1868 to 1971)
the last Monday in May (since 1972)
General John A. Logan on May 5th, 1868
Memorial Day honors men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. It began in the years following the Civil War, a war in which more soldiers sacrificed their lives than in any previous conflict. After the war ended in 1865, the first national cemeteries were established. By the late 1860s, Americans started having springtime tributes to fallen soldiers, with the decorating of graves with flowers, and the saying of prayers.
On May 5, 1868, a proclamation was made by General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Northern Civil War veterans organization, calling for a day of decoration and national remembrance for May 30 of that year. He called for flowers to be placed on the graves of perished Union soldiers. May 30 was chosen for the observation as it wasn't the date of any specific Civil War battle. On the first observation, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, where 5,000 people decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. The holiday was known as Decoration Day at this time, and specifically honored those who had died in the Civil War.
During the following years, Northern states began holding similar events. New York became the first state to officially recognize the holiday, and by 1890 all Northern states had done the same. Southern states held different days for honoring their dead at the time, not observing the day until after World War I, a time in which the day also began being used to honor the dead from all wars, not just those from the Civil War. The name changed from being known as Decoration Day to Memorial Day over time. The name change began in the late-nineteenth century but was not widespread until after World War II.
While a few dozen cities claim to be the birthplace of the holiday, in 1966 the government recognized Waterloo, New York, as its official birthplace. They had first observed the day on May 5, 1866, and had since held a community-wide event where businesses were closed and residents decorated cemeteries. In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed, and the holiday was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May. This went into effect in 1971, the same year the holiday also became an official federal holiday.
The day has been commonly observed by the visiting of cemeteries and memorials, and the watching of parades that often have military personnel and members from veterans organizations in them. The National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed in December 2000, asking for Americans to pay a moment of respect at 3:00 pm local time on the day, by observing a moment of silence or listening to "Taps." The day is also seen as the unofficial start to summer, with parties, family gatherings, barbecues, and cookouts being popular.
How to Observe
Here are some ways to observe the day:
- Visit a cemetery or memorial, and perhaps lay down flowers and flags.
- Attend a Memorial Day parade.
- Put out a flag or raise a flag. On Memorial Day, flags are to be raised to the top of the pole and then lowered to half-staff. At noon the flag is to be raised back to the top. The flying of the flag at half-staff symbolizes the fallen, and its raising to full-staff shows the resolve of those who are still living, and that the death of the soldiers won't be in vain.
- Participate in the National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 pm.
- Wear poppies.
- Plan a trip to the National Memorial Day Museum in Waterloo, New York.
- Watch the National Memorial Day Concert.
- Gather with family or friends and have a cookout.