Memorial Day, legal holiday observed annually on the last Monday in May in the United States, in honor of the nation’s armed services personnel killed in wartime. The holiday was originally called Decoration Day because it is a time for decorating graves with flowers and flags. Over time, the designation Memorial Day became far more common.
II ORIGINS OF MEMORIAL DAY
In the United States, local observances to honor the war dead became widespread following the American Civil War (1861-1865), which had taken more than 600,000 lives. These local observances inspired General John Alexander Logan, the leader of a Union veterans’ group called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), to issue a general’s order in 1868 designating May 30 as a day for “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.” (By “the late rebellion,” Logan meant the Civil War, also known as the War of Rebellion.) Accordingly, on May 30, 1868, several thousand people gathered to observe Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. The memorial ceremonies were presided over by Washington officials such as General Ulysses Grant and included a tribute by General James A. Garfield. Following the speeches, thousands of war veterans, orphans, and other participants helped decorate the more than 20,000 graves of Civil War dead in the cemetery.
A number of towns in the United States claim to have originated the custom of decorating graves in memorial of the Civil War dead, including Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. However, in 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation that declared Waterloo, New York, the birthplace of Memorial Day. Townspeople there had begun decorating graves of soldiers, flying flags at half-mast, and organizing parades of veterans 100 years earlier, in May 1866. Waterloo has continued this tradition every year.
III MEMORIAL DAY BECOMES A NATIONAL HOLIDAY
In 1873 New York became the first state to declare a holiday on May 30. By the end of the 1800s, states throughout the nation had declared Memorial Day a holiday.
After World War I (1914-1918), Memorial Day observances were changed to honor the dead in all American wars, starting with the American Revolution. The U.S. Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday in 1971, and changed the date of observance from May 30 to the last Monday in May to give workers a three-day weekend.
IV MEMORIAL DAY OBSERVANCES TODAY
Memorial Day is marked by parades, speeches, and the decoration of graves. Traditionally, the president or vice president places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, and small flags are placed on all the graves. Ceremonies also are held at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Many people choose to visit family graves on Memorial Day.
Many Southern states continue to honor the Confederate dead on a separate day. Confederate Memorial Day is observed on the fourth Monday in April in Alabama, the last Monday in April in Mississippi, April 26 in Georgia, May 10 in North Carolina and South Carolina, the last Monday in May in Virginia, and June 3 in Louisiana. Texas observes Confederate Heroes Day on January 19, the birthday of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Tennessee observes Confederate Decoration Day on June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy (see Confederate States of America).
The Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer activities, such as picnics and trips to the beach. A well-known automobile race, the Indianapolis 500, is held in Indiana every year on Memorial Day weekend.