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What is the History of Memorial Day?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Memorial Day has been celebrated in the United States since the 1860s, although it was originally known as Remembrance Day. This holiday's history is long and a bit tangled, with multiple cities and individuals laying claim to the invention of Memorial Day as an organized holiday. In all probability, credit for Memorial Day should probably be shared among a number of individuals.

This holiday occurs on the last Monday in May, and it is set aside for the remembrance of American men and women who have died in service to their country. By tradition, people often visit graveyards on Memorial Day to decorate the graves of deceased veterans and service members, and ceremonies are often held at military ceremonies to commemorate America's war dead. Politicians such as the President are frequently present at such ceremonies as a mark of respect.

The desire to decorate the graves of the dead is, of course, ancient, but in the American Civil War, such huge numbers died that it was difficult for many Americans to cope with the sheer numbers of dead. In both the North and South, people decorated graves of both allied and enemy dead as a mark of respect, with Southern women in particular being noted for organized grave tending expeditions. At the close of the Civil War, the idea of establishing a formal holiday to honor the war dead was established, and Decoration Day was born.

Numerous American cities began holding their own decoration days, with General John Logan popularizing the holiday with declarations and graveyard visits. In 1868, Logan signed a formal proclamation designating 30 May as “Decoration Day.” The formal date of 30 May was chosen because it did not fall on the anniversary of a battle, encouraging people to honor all of the dead from the Civil War rather than to remember a specific event.

After the First World War, people expanded the meaning of Decoration Day, choosing to honor all war dead, rather than just those from the Civil War. After the Second World War, the term “Memorial Day” began to be more common. An Act of Congress in 1968 designated the last Monday in May as Memorial Day in an attempt to make the celebration of federal holidays more uniform and convenient, ensuring that the date didn't fall during the weekend or in the middle of the week.

Because Memorial Day is a federal holiday, institutions like banks, schools, and post offices are not open on Memorial Day. Some communities take the day as an opportunity to have a formal organized memorial event which includes an expedition to local cemeteries, and some people observe a moment of silence on Memorial Day to honor America's war dead.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Animandel — On Mar 18, 2014

As an American, I think every citizen of the United States should have the opportunity to spend at least one Memorial Day in Washington D.C. All of the activities and planned events are a great way to remember men and women who died in military service. In addition to the parades and gatherings, Washington has some awe inspiring monuments dedicated to fallen troops.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the Vietnam Memorial Wall are must-sees. You can almost feel the spirits or the presence of the people honored with those monuments. The visit was an emotionally powerful experience for me.

By Drentel — On Mar 18, 2014

It makes sense that Decoration Day, which became Memorial Day, should have come about as a result of the casualties during the American Civil War. After all, that is the war that cost the United States the most lives as a result of war.

By Sporkasia — On Mar 17, 2014

Working in the newspaper business, I am confronted each year with putting together a newspaper with Memorial Day as the primary focus. A couple of years back, I asked a reporter to write a piece on the holiday for the centerpiece of our paper. With all my other duties, I failed to keep a close eye on how the reporter's story was progressing.

A couple days before the article was to run, I discovered that the reporter had written a story more appropriate for Veterans Day, and he could not understand why there was a difference. While both days honor our troops, there is a glaring difference between the two holidays and what they represent and commemorate. That difference should never be forgotten.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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