Memorial Day—Time to Honor Our War Dead
The last Monday in May is the day for America to honored the sacrifices of its military. Oh, yeah, and it's time to barbecue.
Say Memorial Day, and many Americans’ thoughts turn to barbecuing. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, it is the second most popular day to grill (sandwiched between the Fourth of July and Labor Day).
And, it is the unofficial beginning of summer. Our weekend weather forecast is a testment to that.
History.com recounts the real purpose of the last Monday of May: to honor men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military dating back to the Civil War. It did not become a federal holiday as we know it until 1971.
The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history, requiring the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
The day became known as Decoration Day. It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo—which had first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866—was chosen because it hosted an annual, communitywide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later in May. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. However, because the focus was the Civil War dead, many Southern states did not want to observe a day with the North, and honored their dead on another day.
That changed after World War I, when the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
Now in the 21st century, cities, suburbs and towns across the United States continue to host Memorial Day parades, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations.