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The History of Memorial Day

history of memorial dayDo you know the history of Memorial Day? Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. The holiday is currently observed every year on the last Monday of May. Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers.

The practice of decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War (more than 600,000) meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.

Warrenton, Virginia was the location of the first Civil War soldier’s grave ever to be decorated, on June 3, 1861. There is also documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers’ graves in 1862. In addition, local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers’ graves on July 4, 1864, and that Boalsburg is the birthplace of Memorial Day.

The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” which was first used in 1882. Memorial Day did not become the more common name until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30th date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’ change of date within a few years.

Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer and remembrance of fallen soldiers. On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

The History of Memorial Day