The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, but over two dozen cities and towns claim otherwise.

There is also evidence organized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War.  A hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

It is not important who was the very first.  What is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

General John Logan, a Union officer stationed in Huntsville during the Civil War played a major part in Memorial Day.  In fact, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by General Logan, at that time, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  It was first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873.  By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states.

The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war.

Memorial Day is now celebrated in almost every state on the last Monday in May because Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971 to ensure a three-day weekend for federal holidays.

Traditional observance of Memorial Day has diminished over the years as many Americans have forgotten the meaning and traditions of Memorial Day.  Some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, and not just those fallen in service to our country.
On the other hand, since the late 1950s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.  

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, on Memorial Day, all Americans “voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps’.”

The National Moment of Remembrance is a step in the right direction to returning the meaning back to the day.   But what may be needed to return the solemn, and even sacred, spirit back to Memorial Day is forget the three-day weekend for a return to its traditional day of observance.


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