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Do You Know the Origins of Memorial Day?

The Dept. of Veterans Affairs will be hosting Memorial Day ceremonies at VA national cemeteries across the country.

by Countable | 5.26.19

For many, the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, a time for corporate America to markdown its wares, a time to enjoy the improving weather with beers, BBQs, and a three-day weekend.

You could argue that the freedom to pound Budweiser and scream “’Merica!” into the sky on a Monday night is secured by the brave troops in our armed forces. But the holiday’s true purpose is to honor the memories of American military members who lost their lives in the line of duty and those who know the cost of war will tell you that saying “Happy Memorial Day” is a no-no.

The first observances of what would eventually become known as Memorial Day began the year after the Civil War ended in 1866, when a number of communities gathered together to decorate the graves of local soldiers who were killed in the conflict.

Where the holiday officially began has been a matter of debate, as around 25 of those communities  —  including some in Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania  —  have claimed to be its birthplace. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1966 that Waterloo, New York had been the true birthplace a century earlier, when the town’s businesses all closed for the day and flags were flown at half-staff.

The first large-scale observance of the holiday (known back then as Decoration Day) happened on May 30, 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery. Legend holds that the date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom throughout most of the country. There, two former Union generals  —  John Logan and James Garfield (who later became president)  —  gave a speech to 5,000 participants before the crowd decorated over 20,000 graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and virtue.” — James Garfield May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery

After the conclusion of World War I, Decoration Day was broadened to honor not just those killed in the Civil War, but fallen soldiers from all conflicts. The Civil War is still the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, accounting for about 750,000 of the more than 1,354,664 Americans who’ve died in the service of their country.

The term “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and became more widely used following World War II, but didn’t become the holiday’s official name until 1967. The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holidays Act which moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the final Monday in May, allowing for a convenient three-day weekend.


— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: iStock.com / kellyvandellen)

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