It’s the 3 day weekend that officially kicks off the summer season! A time for hanging at the beach, Bar-b-que, even catching a few laps of the Indy 500. But Memorial Day is also the most solemn American holiday. A day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending their nation.
The Civil war, America’s bloodiest chapter, with over 600,000 soldiers killed in action. Almost every community in every state suffered the loss of young men. As the war came to an end, mourners in both northern and southern states began placing flags and flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. The town of Waterloo New York is credited with officially starting the holiday. On May 5th, 1866, its citizens closed their shops and businesses so that everyone could decorate the graves of everyone killed during the war. Then an old war general had an idea…..
John A Logan was the leader of the Union Veteran Association. He spearheaded an effort to unite all the decoration services into 1 national holiday, designating May 30th as Decoration Day. On the first National Decoration Day in 1868, 5,000 war widows, orphans and other mourners gathered at Arlington National Cemetery. They placed flowers and ribbons on the 20,000 graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Two future presidents and fellow Union veterans, Ulysses S. Grant and James A. Garfield, attended the ceremony.
Throughout the 19th century, Decoration Day grew. Ceremonies were held on civil war battlefields like Gettysburg Pennsylvania and Antietam Field in Maryland. By the end of the century, the holiday was renamed Memorial Day. But war wounds ran deep, most southern states refused to commemorate a holiday they regarded as honoring Union soldiers, so each state commemorated their war dead with different Confederate Decoration Days. Some states continue this tradition to this day.
World War 1 ushered in the art of modern warfare. America lost over 130,000 soldiers in the global conflict. This shared experience finally bonded Americas north and south. When the war ended, May 30th became a day to honor ALL American soldiers who died in battle as far back as the revolutionary war.
America interred its first unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery on Armistice day 1921. Every Memorial Day, this soldier and other unknown soldiers are honored with a wreath laying ceremony conducted by the President or Vice President. They are reminders of all those who never made it home.
Memorial became a federal holiday in 1971 and congress shifted it from May 30th to the 4th Monday in May, giving Federal workers a 3 day weekend.
All across America, civilians and Veterans still gather in parades and vigils to remember the generations who gave their lives for their nation’s freedom.