The History of Memorial Day

The History of Memorial Day

written by: PBS

by: PBS
Soldier-buried Soldier-buried

Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to our country. It was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers, by proclamation of Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers.

During that first national celebration, former Union Gen. and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, after which 5,000 participants helped to decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were 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 their virtue."

- James A. GarfieldMay 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery

This event was inspired by local observances of the day that had taken place in several towns throughout America in the three years after the Civil War. In 1873, New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many more cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states had declared it a legal holiday. After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America's wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States.

When Is Memorial Day?

In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be celebrated on the last Monday of May. Several southern states, however, officially celebrate an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead, sometimes referred to as a Confederate Memorial Day: January 19 in Texas; third Monday in Jan. in Arkansas; fourth Monday in Apr. in Alabama and Mississippi; April 26 in Florida and Georgia; May 10 in North and South Carolina; last Monday in May in Virginia; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Memorial Day is celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery each year with a ceremony in which a small American flag is placed on each grave. Traditionally, the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. About 5,000 people attend the ceremony annually.

The Meaning of Memorial Day

Since the earliest ceremonies in small American towns following the Civil War, we have gathered on Memorial Day to honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. As in those early days of laying wreaths and placing flags, our national day of remembrance is often felt most deeply among the families and communities who have personally lost friends and loved ones.

This national holiday may also be the unofficial start of the summer season, but all Americans must take a moment to remember the sacrifice of our valiant military service members, first responders and their families. Memorial Day is a day of both celebration and grief, accounting for the honor of our heroes and reflecting on their tragic loss.

"Here at the Capitol, just weeks before the end of the Civil War, a weary President Lincoln pleaded with his fellow citizens, to 'bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.'"

- Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret.)

Civil War soldiers had been mustered from towns and villages across the land. Like today, the loss of each soldier was a profound tragedy for both family and community.Today, we honor service members from all of America's past wars. But there is immediacy in our sorrow; the wounds of war are new again. As we struggle for ways to heal, Abraham Lincoln's message of almost 150 years ago can still inspire us.

This, then, is the mission of Memorial Day: to reach out in support of all the soldiers and their families who have sacrificed so much for us.

Throughout America's history, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have died bravely serving our country. The number of battle deaths speak to the sacrifices our soldiers and their families have made.

Discover Memorial Day Traditions and Activities

Every Memorial Day, families and communities across the nation take time to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation. Americans observe this special holiday in many different ways. Review some of the most popular Memorial Day traditions below.

Displaying the Flag

On Memorial Day, the U.S. flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon. In the morning, the flag should be raised momentarily to the top and then lowered to half-staff. Americans can also honor prisoners of war and those missing in action by flying the POW/MIA flag.

Visiting Grave Sites

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because communities honored their war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. Many Americans make special flower arrangements and deliver them as a family to grave sites of their loved ones and ancestors.

Participating in the National Moment of Remembrance

In accordance with a congressional resolution passed in 2000, Americans pause wherever they are at 3:00 p.m. local time for a moment of silence to remember and honor the fallen.

Visiting Local Veterans' Homes and Hospitals

Many living American veterans require long-term medical care or housing assistance, and they can often feel forgotten. The Memorial Day holiday is a great time to let them know that we appreciate their sacrifice and that of their families and their friends lost in battle.

Attending Memorial Day Parades

The Memorial Day parade is a time-honored tradition in cities and towns across America. Neighbors come together to remember with pride those who sacrificed so much for our country.

Experiencing the Nation's Memorials

Memorial Day can also be an opportunity to visit or read about the national memorials in Washington, D.C., as well as local memorials around the country.

Brushing up on Family and American History

Memorial Day is a favorite time for Americans to read their family history, look at old photographs and learn about their ancestors, especially those who died in the service of their nation. It's also an occasion for reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and other historic and patriotic speeches by presidents and leaders of the armed services.

Wearing Memorial Day Poppies

The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrea. War worker Moina Michael made a personal pledge to always wear red silk poppies as an emblem of "keeping the faith with all who died," and began a tradition that was adopted in the United States, England, France, Australia and more than 50 other countries.