History of Memorial Day
Memorial Day is more than just a day off of work to celebrate the beginning of summer. It’s a somber and serious day on which we remember those who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces. Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.
Every year on Memorial Day, many across the nation gather for services, parades, and concerts to honor fallen soldiers. Grave sites of men and women who have served are decorated with wreaths, flowers, and other trinkets. When did these practices and traditions begin and how have they become part of a national holiday?
These traditions began during the Civil War as a way to honor the dead. The Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. The sheer number of soldiers from both sides who died in the Civil War (more than 600,000) meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. The death toll was so high and everyone was in some way touched by loss during the Civil War that decorating graves became a cathartic experience associated with the trauma. Decorating the graves of fallen soldiers was a long-standing tradition, but the establishment of military cemeteries around the nation transformed the practice into a community event and tradition.
Before it was called Memorial Day, the holiday honoring fallen soldiers was known as Decoration Day. The holiday was officially announced in 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. He declared, “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.”
It is said that May 30th was originally chosen as the date for Decoration Day 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. Since then, Arlington National Cemetery has become the customary destination for the president’s Memorial Day speech. Arlington is the final resting place for more than 400,000 service members, it is the site of John F. Kennedy’s grave, and it is also the site of The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
War is an unfortunate part of our country’s history, and it is paramount that we recognize the sacrifice and honor those we have lost. Since World War II and the wars that have followed during the past few decades, there have been approximately 560,000 deaths of U.S. soldiers. There have been 7,222 U.S. military deaths during the War on Terror. Memorial Day is a chance to set aside our differences and show gratitude for the brave men and women who have fallen in the line of duty.