Don't Forget Memorial Day Is More Than the Start of Summer - It's History

Caroline de Braganza
Flags and FlowersLiam Ortiz/Pixabay

On Memorial Day, May 31, Americans remember those in the US Military who died on active service. Many across the nation will host celebrations with friends and family to commemorate this special day.

But let’s not forget the history and meaning behind this day—it’s more than just the first long weekend of summer.

Why choose May?

The US Civil War (1861-1865), was the bloodiest conflict in American history.

In 1869 Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who headed an organisation of Union veterans - the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) - established Decoration Day as a way for the nation to decorate the graves of those who died in the Civil War “with the choicest springtime flowers”.

Logan chose May 30 to solemnize Decoration Day as flowers would be in bloom nationwide. In that first year, 27 states held ceremonies. By the end of the 19th century, many state legislatures had passed proclamations confirming the date

What happened in the Confederate States?

Logan’s focus was on Union soldiers. A part of his original order reads:

“The 30th day 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.”

A few historians believe that, according to his own wife, what was happening in the South played a role in Logan’s idea of commemorating the fallen.

Even before the war ended, women’s groups across much of the South were gathering informally to decorate the graves of Confederate dead. In April 1886, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia resolved to commemorate the fallen once a year.

Confederate Memorial Day is still an official state holiday in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Tennessee commemorate the day, and Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia formerly recognized it.

Decoration Day became Memorial Day in 1971

It was only after World War I the day expanded to include those who have died in every American war.

But it was another 50 years before an act of Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971—people still often call it Decoration Day. They changed the date to the last Monday in May, in line with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968.

Veterans groups continue to lobby for a return to May 30 observances. Their concern is more Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose.

At the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, on May 30, 1868, people placed small American flags on each grave. Many national cemeteries follow this tradition today, and in recent years, many families have adopted this custom to decorate the graves of all their loved ones.

Where is the official birthplace of Memorial Day?

Controversy still rages over the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866.

Cities in the North and South lay claim to its origins, including:

  • Columbus, Miss.
  • Macon and Columbus, Ga.
  • Richmond, Va.
  • Boalsburg, Pa.
  • Carbondale, Ill.

Around 25 places have been named, many in the South where most of the war dead are buried.

But in 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y. the official birthplace of Memorial Day.

Supporters of the claim say earlier observances were informal, or not community-wide or one-time events. A ceremony in Waterloo on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War, where businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.

Let’s not quibble on where the custom began, but why.

The National Moment of Remembrance Act

In December 2000, US Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed this into law. The act created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, whose charter is to encourage and coordinate commemorations in the US of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.

This National Moment encourages every American to pause for a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time wherever they are on May 31 to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.

“It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”—Carmella LaSpada, Moment of Remembrance founder.

A new frontline – Covid-19

Let us on this Memorial Day likewise pay tribute to the 3,600 health workers in the US who have lost their lives fighting this pandemic, and the 609,000 Americans who succumbed.

The pressure is easing as over 50% of the nation has received at least one does of the vaccination.

But we’re in a global pandemic.

Let us pray for those courageous health workers across the world—South America, Africa, India, Asia - who continue to fight this battle.

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Published essayist. Follow me for local news that impacts our lives, plus stories on public and mental health. Through writing, I also share my passion for music, politics, our environment and social justice, and hope you find value in my words.


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