The History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a day when we stop and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that many of our service men and women have made to ensure our freedoms. This year however, Memorial Day will look different for many people throughout the country with parades cancelled and people being encouraged not to gather in large groups. That does not mean, however, that we cannot celebrate. Memorial Day is so much more than parades and barbeques.
The idea of Memorial Day goes back thousands of years when Greek and Romans would set aside a day to celebrate those who had died in battle. In 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group, The Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30 should become a day nationwide commemorating the more than 620,000 soldiers killed during the Civil War. Known as Decoration Day, people were encouraged to lay flowers and decorate graves of the war dead. May 30 was chosen because there were no battle anniversaries that fell on that day. General Logan may have gotten the idea from several women’s groups across the South who would decorate the graves of the Confederate dead. In April of 1886, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia decided to honor the fallen once a year, an example that General Logan chose to follow according to his wife. While 27 states held ceremonies the first year, 1868, and every former state of the Union celebrating by 1890 the holiday was used to just commemorate those killed during the Civil War. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the tradition was extended to include those killed in all wars. However, Memorial Day did not become a federal holiday until 1971.
In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect and moved Memorial Day from May 30 to a set day, the last Monday in May. Many veterans groups at the time were concerned that the holiday would be seen more as the first long weekend of summer and not as a way to honor the country’s fallen. Many continued to lobby for the change back to May 30th with Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye at the lead. Senator Inouye, who was a decorated World War II veteran continued to reintroduce legislation in support of the change back at the start of every Congressional term for 20 years until his death in 2012.
Several traditions have become a staple in celebrating Memorial Day. Placing American Flags on graves is done throughout the country. Also holding memorial services including the laying of the wreath at The Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington Cemetery. Another tradition started in 1915 with a poem written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae entitled “In Flanders Field”. Inspired by the red poppies growing on this piece of ground in France after the Second Battle of Ypres, McCrae’s poem gives a voice to the soldiers who were killed and were buried in the poppy covered ground. Today, many people wear poppies as a symbol of remembrance. The final tradition and perhaps one of the most important is the lowering of the American flag to half-staff until noon on Memorial Day. In 2000, Congress passed legislation encouraging all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3pm local time.
Memorial Day is an important part of our national history. Not to be confused with Veteran’s Day, which celebrates those who have fought and are still with us, Memorial Day, is to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Therefore, even though this year there will be no parades, there are still ways we can honor those who have ensured our freedoms with their lives. Wear a red poppy on your shirt or hat, lower the flag to half-staff, take a walk in the cemetery and visit the graves of those fallen soldiers and at 3pm take a moment in quiet reflection to remember that without the sacrifices of those brave men and women, our country would look a whole lot different.