Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is a federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May and commemorates U.S. Service Members who gave their lives while in military service.
In 1835, a southern plantation located in Charleston, South Carolina was bought by the South Carolina Jockey Club where they established an annual horse race called the Washington Race Course. At the end of the Civil War, this location was used to as a prisoner-of-war camp where over 200 Union soldiers died and were buried. By April 1865, a white picket fence was erected and inscribed with words, “The Martyrs of the Race Course.” It wasn’t until May 1, 1865 that thousands of people, mainly newly freed blacks, visited the site where the members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry marched around the site and graves were decorated, speeches were made, and picnics were enjoyed.
Another location claiming to be the birthplace of the holiday is Columbus, Mississippi. On April 25, 1866 a group of women visited a local cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who died during the battle at Shiloh. Uneasy about neglecting nearby graves of Union soldiers, the women placed flowers on their graves as well.
Although similar such observances took place all over the country from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania to Carbondale, Illinois, it wasn’t until two years later, on May 5, 1868, the head of the Grand Army of the Republican (a Union veterans organization) established “Decoration Day” as a day for the nation to decorate the graves of those who had fallen during the Civil War with flowers. Major General John Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30 because it was believed on that date flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The first large observance was held in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of General Robert E. Lee. Various Washington officials, including General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the Grand Army of the Republican made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.
In May 1966, President Lyndon Johnson formally declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthday place of Memorial Day. Perhaps this location was chosen because on May 5, 1866, the local veterans who had fought in the Civil War were more formally honored by the local citizens as businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff.
In 1882, “Memorial Day” was first used in lieu of “Decoration Day,” but wouldn’t become more common until after World War II.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day the holiday and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It wasn’t until the end of World War I that Memorial Day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.
By the second half of the 20th Century, “Decoration Day” was no longer the commonly known name of the day of observance and a Federal law was passed in 1967 declaring “Memorial Day” as its official day. One year later, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday, Veterans Day and Memorial Day. The change, which would take effect at the federal level in 1971, moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.
Today, Memorial Day is traditionally observed through local parades, visiting cemeteries and memorials, placing American flags on each graces site at National Cemeteries, flying the American flag, family gatherings, the Indianapolis 500, golf tournaments, and, of course, barbeques.
Regardless of how you spend your Memorial Day, be sure to take a moment and remember those who died while serving our country. Remember those who gave the greatest sacrifice so that you can live in the greatest country this world has ever known.