Fun is Mixed with Solemn Remembrance on Memorial Day
For many, Memorial Day signifies a three-day weekend and the unofficial start of summer! But as you sit by the pool or look ahead to summer vacations, we urge you not to forget — or perhaps to learn more — about what Memorial Day actually means and who it honors.
Although it’s often now commemorated with parades, community events, or backyard parties involving hamburgers and hotdogs, Memorial Day was originally intended to be a solemn day of remembrance for every American who died while serving in the U.S. military.
Honoring Civil War Soldiers
When the Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, it claimed more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history. It also required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, various towns and cities began hosting spring tributes to countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers. As this tradition grew, the holiday was originally known as Decoration Day, and it honored fallen Union and Confederate soldiers.
Several cities — including Charleston, South Carolina; Waterloo, New York; and Columbus, Georgia — claim to have originated the holiday. Charleston often gets credit because it precipitated the holiday as a poignant offering showing a part of the country struggling to rebuild itself after a very bloody war. Also, the town’s black residents organized a May Day ceremony and honored soldiers by landscaping an area of unmarked graves for 257 Union soldiers who died in a Charleston prison.
Waterloo first celebrated Decoration Day on May 5, 1866, with a community-wide event. Two years later, General John A. Logan, who led an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, petitioned for a nationwide day of remembrance.
Unsurprisingly, celebrations took root differently in the North and South in the years following the Civil War. By 1890, each Northern state had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states continued to honor fallen soldiers on separate days until after World War I. But after World War II, the holiday gained a strong following and national identity.
A New Name to Honor All
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act, which designating Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. It became an official federal holiday in 1971.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials to place American flags on graves and honor those who have died in military service.
Also on Memorial Day, the U.S. flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains until noon. This is to remember the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. Then it is raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. This is to represent their memory being raised up 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.