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Remembering the Fallen: A History of Memorial Day

Kristine has a B.A. in Journalism from Penn State University and an M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Michigan.

A soldier places flags on graves in Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Memorial Day

A soldier places flags on graves in Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Memorial Day

For most Americans, Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. It is our first chance to hold outdoor parties and picnics with family and friends and welcome in the warm days ahead. But the origins of Memorial Day are based on traditions that are much more somber.

Decoration Day

According to the History.com article “Memorial Day,” the day was originally named “Decoration Day.” In the late 1860s, various American towns and cities—many in the South—began marking the day to honor casualties of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history which took an estimated 620,000 lives, according to History.com.

According to records, one of the earliest memorial events was held in Charleston, SC, and organized by a group of former slaves about a month after the end of the Civil War in 1865. The first officially recognized observance, however, was in Waterloo, NY.

The town began honoring fallen soldiers on May 5, 1866. Waterloo businesses would close for the day. Town residents would visit the graves of the soldiers and decorate them with flowers and flags, according to History.com.

A National Day of Remembrance

The idea of a national celebration honoring the nation’s fallen soldiers began in 1868. General John A. Logan, a leader of a Northern Civil War veteran organization, was the first to call for a national day of remembrance.

“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,” Logan announced.

The first national commemoration did indeed take place on May 30, 1868. On the first official “Decoration Day,” volunteers decorated the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, which contains both Confederate and Union graves, according to the article “Today in History – May 30” on the Library of Congress website, LOC.gov.

A Memorial Song

In 1870, Mary B. Slade and musician W.O. Perkins wrote the song “Soldier’s Memorial Day” in honor of the commemorations taking place in cities all over the United States at the end of May. The lyrics are:

When flow’ry Summer is at hand,

And Spring has gemm’d the earth with bloom,

We hither bring, with loving hand,

Bright flow’rs to deck our soldier’s tomb.

Gentle birds above are sweetly singing

O’er the graves of heroes brave and true;

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While the sweetest flow’rs we are bringing,

Wreath’d in garlands of red, white and blue.

With snowy hawthorn, clusters white,

Fair violets of heav’nly blue,

And early roses, fresh and bright,

We wreathe the red, and white, and blue.

Memorial Day

In 1971, federal law changed Decoration Day to Memorial Day and reassigned the date to the last Monday in May. The law also extended the honor to include all soldiers who died in American military conflicts, according to the Library of Congress.

A national observance of Memorial Day still takes place each year at Arlington National Cemetery. A wreath is placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and graves are decorated with an American flag.

According to the Library of Congress, “Protocol for flying the American flag on Memorial Day includes raising it quickly to the top of the pole at sunrise, immediately lowering it to half-staff until noon, and displaying it at full staff from noon until sunset.”

The Unofficial Start of Summer

In many communities, Memorial Day is honored by placing flags on the graves of veterans in local cemeteries. Many families also mark the unofficial start of summer with picnics and barbeques, according to History.com.

A national moment of silence is also observed each Memorial Day at 3:00 PM, encouraging all Americans to remember those who have given their lives defending freedom.

Sources:

History.com Editors (2022, May 16). “Memorial Day”. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history

Library of Congress. “Today in History – May 30”. LOC.gov. https://www.loc.gov/item/today-in-history/may-30/

Zeller, Bob (2022, January 6). “How Many Died in the American Civil War?” History.com. https://www.history.com/news/american-civil-war-deaths#:~:text=For%20more%20than%20a%20century,deaths%20and%20258%2C000%20Confederate%20deaths.

Sheet music for the song "Soldier's Memorial Day" written in 1870 to honor Decoration Day

Sheet music for the song "Soldier's Memorial Day" written in 1870 to honor Decoration Day

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Kristine Sorchilla Moore

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