The History of Memorial Day

May 14, 2019

Observed the last Monday of May, Memorial Day is known to many as an exciting day off that marks the start of summer celebrations. While long weekends and gatherings with family and friends are great fun, it is important to understand the deep meaning and history of Memorial Day. This holiday marks a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers who lost their lives while serving our country.

Recognizing these men and women honors their sacrifice. Read below to learn more about the history of Memorial Day and how to observe the holiday while paying respects to those we have lost.

Mother and Daughter Observing Memorial for Memorial Day

Memorial Day History

  • May 1, 1865: Three weeks after the Confederate surrender in the Civil War, over 1000 newly-freed slaves and U.S. Colored Troops regiments join together to develop a proper burial site for fallen Union soldiers. During this time, flowers are placed around the burial site while hymns are sung to remember the lives lost in the war.
  • May 5, 1866: Residents of Waterloo, New York holds a community-wide event to honor soldiers annually. Residents decorate the graves of soldiers and close businesses for the day for observance. While many cities observed the fallen in some fashion following the war and claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Lyndon B. Johnson gave the official title to Waterloo on May 26, 1966.
  • May 5, 1868: General John A. Logan calls for a national day of remembrance called Decoration Day. His vision is to decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers and other items. He proposes May 30, as it is not an anniversary of any battles and is an opportune time for every state in the country to have flowers in bloom.
  • 1882: The term “Memorial Day” is first used in place of Decoration Day.
  • 1968: Congress passes the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to move Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May in order to establish an annual three-day weekend for federal employees.
  • 1971: The Uniform Monday Holiday Act goes into effect as Memorial Day officially becomes a federal holiday.
  • 2000: Congress passes the National Moment of Remembrance Act that asks Americans to take a moment of remembrance at 3:00pm local time for one minute.
Little Boy Waving American Flags at Memorial Day Parade

How to Observe Memorial Day Traditions

Attend Community Events

Getting involved in your community is one of the best ways to observe Memorial Day. Many communities put on Memorial Day parades to honor not only those who have fallen, but those who have served and are currently serving as well. You can also attend or livestream the National Memorial Day Parade that is held in Washington, DC. Look out for other community events going on in your area such as memorial services, runs, and community cookouts.

Fly Flags at Half-Staff

When our nation is in mourning, the flag flies at half-staff. On Memorial Day, fly the American flag and POW/MIA flag at half-staff until noon. The, raise the flags to full-staff for the remainder of the day. On days like Memorial Day especially, taking care to properly fold the flag at the end of the day is a ceremonious way to honor the event.

Observe the National Moment of Remembrance

While one of the simplest Memorial Day traditions, it is a powerful one. At 3:00pm local time, observe one minute of remembrance for the fallen. This time was chosen as it is typically the busiest time for festivities such as cookouts or pool parties. This moment requires us to stop at a busy time to truly think and give gratitude for sacrifices made.

Man Observing Memorial at American War Cemetery in France

Pay Respects at Cemeteries and Memorials

If your live near a war cemetery or memorial, take some time out of your day to visit. To honor the initial intent of Decoration Day, bring flowers, wreaths, or flags to decorate the graves and memorials. On Memorial Day, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier receives a wreath from the president or their designee in a remembrance ceremony.

Volunteer with Veterans

Whether this means bringing cookies to your local veteran’s hospital or raising money for veterans, giving back to those who have served is a selfless act on Memorial Day. The poppy is the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and one of the most wonderful Memorial Day traditions to get involved with is the Buddy Poppy initiative that assists disabled and needy veterans.

This Memorial Day, be sure to hold the holiday’s history and meaning near and dear to your heart. In the military community, it is important to remember those who came before us to pave the road for our better future. Even if you do use Memorial Day to mark the start of summer, take time during your backyard BBQ to spend a moment of remembrance and gratitude for those who lost their lives to defend our country.

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