Beyond the cookouts, the holiday sales, the family trips, picnics and parades there is a deep and profound reason for Memorial Day.
Although we honor all military personnel, Memorial Day is specifically designated as honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War but did not become an official federal holiday until 1971.
The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, obviously claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history because all combatants were Americans, and it required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.
By the late 1860s, Americans in various communities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, reciting prayers and decorating their graves with flowers — thus the original name of Decoration Day.
Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. It is unclear exactly where 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 first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, was chosen because it hosted an annual community-wide event during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “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 was not 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. Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.
Although Memorial Day originally honored only those lost in the Civil War, American involvement in The Great War, later called World War I, made it evolve 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, a controversial decision that moved several major holidays from their traditional or historic dates to Mondays that gave federal — and later on state and local — employees three-day paid weekends. The law went into effect in 1971.
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.