Origins of Memorial Day - a short history lesson

American Legions and VFW Posts with volunteer help spend hours placing flags and markers on our veterans' grave sites in preparation for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. We all realize it's more than a three-day weekend, but a day to remember those that have fallen defending our freedom. Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans' Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans' Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

Memorial Day has been around longer than any of us remember. It started as "Decoration Day" in the late 1860's after the Civil War. More than 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War, and both North and South wanted to commemorate them. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape.  In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead. Many cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day including, Charleston, SC; Waterloo, NY; Boalsburg, PA; Carbondale, IL; Columbus, GA; and Columbus, MI.

In the years following the War Between the States, the North and South held various ceremonies to honor the fallen Union and Confederate soilders. In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued what was called General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a memorial day. Beginning with Michigan in 1871, states passed laws making the holiday official. May 30 was chosen as it held no particular relevance to any battle, and flowers would be in bloom for the decorating. However, it wasn't until 1971 that Memorial Day was declared a federal holiday by an act of Congress. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

Memorial Day is celebrated differently in communities across the nation; however, all Americans are supposed to pause for a minute of silence at 3 p.m. local time to pay tribute to the men and women who died while serving the nation. Congress instituted this practice in 2000 with the passage of The National Moment of Remembrance Act, so this is one Memorial Day activity that is actually the law.

While we look upon Memorial Day as the beginning of summer, let's also remember that there are more than 260,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery alone of men and women who gave their lives so that we may celebrate the arrival of summer. (For actual counts of military deaths during war, visit Military Factory.)

"From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion..." from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address