More Than Just a 3-Day Weekend: How Memorial Day Began
Each year on the last Monday in May, businesses throughout the country shut their doors, the U.S. Postal Service halts its mail delivery, and flags are raised in honor of Memorial Day. Most Americans know Memorial Day is a day on which we honor those who have died serving our country, but they don’t exactly know how the holiday started. In this post, we’ll clarify the origin story of Memorial Day as well as how it has evolved since then.
The Origin Legend
A common misconception about Memorial Day is it was begun by freed slaves to honor those who died defending the Union in the Civil War. In May 1865, free African-Americans in Charleston, SC, reburied former Union prisoners of war and held a ceremony dedicating the cemetery to them, according to Snopes. While the day was meant to honor the men who gave their lives on the battlefield, it was not the origin of the Memorial Day holiday we observe today.
How Memorial Day Began
In the spring of 1865, the Civil War finally ended after claiming more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history. To commemorate the lives lost in battle, Americans began holding tributes each spring during the late 1860s. They would decorate the graves of those who had died with flowers, leading to the day being referred to as Decoration Day.
General John A. Logan, leader of an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, designated May 30, 1868, as the first official Decoration Day with a strong speech on the importance of remembering those who had died defending the Union.
“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.
From Decoration Day to Memorial Day
From the original 1868 date, Decoration Day continued to be celebrated on May 30 for decades after its initial observance. It gradually became known as Memorial Day as years passed.
However, in 1968, 100 years after the original date, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This established Memorial Day’s official observance on the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971 and made Memorial Day as a federal holiday.
Memorial Day Traditions
Today on Memorial Day, Americans across the nation host parades, visit cemeteries and memorials, and wear a red poppy in honor of those fallen in war. But more can be done to remember those who have served and to support our veterans who are still with us.
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