A Brief History of Memorial Day


Photo Credit to the National Archives

Arlington National Cemetery.

Nicholas Silva, Editor-in-Chief

Memorial Day is a national holiday which commemorates the men and women who have died while serving in the military. It is recognized on the last Monday in May, and in addition to its ceremonial purpose, it is seen as the unofficial start of summer.

Memorial Day owes its existence to the Civil War. In the late 1860’s, townspeople began to hold self-contained ceremonies remembering their fallen neighbors, the casualties from the most deadly war in U.S. history.

When the celebration began to gain prominence, it was named Decoration Day, given that the ceremonies revolved around the decoration of the graves. It was widely celebrated by 1868, and was declared by Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The day was set as May 30th by Logan, on the basis that the day did not serve as the anniversary of any noted battle. This date was recognized throughout all Northern states, but Southern states held their own Decoration Day on a different day until after World War I.

In 1873, New York was the first state to declare the day a legal holiday, and many others followed suit. Following the close of the first World War, the day became about honoring all service members who died in battle, not just those from the Civil War.

In 1966, Congress declared Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Other towns argued that they had claims to that title, such as Columbus, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia. There is also evidence that the first celebration was actually held in 1865 by freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina who buried Union soldiers that the fleeing Confederates had left in mass graves. However, it was argued that these celebrations were either not town-wide or were one time events, while Waterloo closed down entirely to recognize the event annually.

Two years later, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act which set nationwide observances of certain holidays to Mondays, and established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. The act was designed to give Federal workers a three day weekend, and went into effect in 1971, and also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

In 2000, Congress passed The National Moment of Remembrance Act which called for Americans to hold a moment of silence at 3PM local time on Memorial Day.

Many people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day, but they are different celebrations. Veterans Day is a day to honor all members of the armed forces, while Memorial Day is exclusively for honoring those that gave their life.