A History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day FlagsToday is Memorial Day in America. Memorial Day, always celebrated on the last Monday in May, is a day when we honor our country’s fallen soldiers. In honor of the day, here’s a history of the holiday:

History of Memorial Day
Following the end of the American Civil War, many places set aside a day to honor soldiers who died in battle. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and several Confederate memorial days.

Supposedly, the first Memorial Day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic racetrack in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity. The freed slaves reinterred the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave into individual graves, fenced in the graveyard, and built an entry arch declaring it a Union graveyard. On May 30, 1887, slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers, thus creating the first Decoration Day. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.

However, the official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village is credited with starting the holiday because it observed the day on May 5, 1866 and continued the tradition every year, whereas previous celebrations were sporadic.

Waterloo resident General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead and decided the Union needed a similar day. On May 5, 1868, as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans’ organization, Logan issued a proclamation stating that “Decoration Day” be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 that year. The date was chosen because no battle had occurred on that day.

Many of the states in the US South refused to celebrate Decoration Day due to lingering hostility toward the Union Army and because there were very few veterans of the Union Army who lived in the South.

The alternative name of “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 but only became common after World War II. It was declared the official name by federal law in 1967.

On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. Memorial Day has endured as one holiday during which most businesses stay closed, because it marks the beginning of the “summer vacation season.”

Memorial Day Celebrations
As on July 4th, most American families celebrate Memorial Day with a BBQ or picnic. Numerous sporting events also occur on the holiday, the most famous being the Indianapolis 500. Since it’s a three-day weekend, many families go on short vacations. (The holiday also starts the summer driving season.) This usually means they visit relatives, head to a national park, camp in the woods, or visit a beach if the weather is nice.

Towns usually sponsor Memorial Day parades honoring those who have served in battle. The president holds a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, and a national moment of remembrance occurs at 3pm Eastern Time.

For more information on the United States, visit my country and city guides to US travel.

  1. christine gilbert

    I was worried about the comments, because it seemed like I couldn’t post any the other day…

  2. Amanda

    This is just what I needed to read, Matt! I was wondering about Memorial Day because from down here in Oz all I knew about it was that some of my blogs had the day off. It’s similar to our Anzac Day (except that we get cookies!) Good to know.

  3. Thanks for this Matt! My great grandparents, grandparents, and brother all served in wars. Last year I attended one of the Memorial Day remembrance ceremonies here in Sacramento. What a great way to honor those who have fallen. I think there is just something special here in the US about the way we remember and honor our soldiers.

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