Why do we honor Memorial Day?

Andersonville National Cemetery photo from the National Parks Service

A volunteer decorating the war graves at Andersonville National Cemetery. Image from the National Parks Service.

In the United States, the final weekend in May is a special time that marks the arrival of the summer season. Americans will light up their grills and barbecues as they prepare a feast of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other backyard favorites. Every year, tourist towns will get their first wave of summer vacation visitors at this time. The famed Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 are traditionally held this weekend. The reason for all of this partying, vacationing, and summer fun is that this is the first three-day weekend in the nice, sunny weather of late spring as the summer solstice approaches. It’s a three-day weekend thanks to Memorial Day, a federal holiday that is always held on the last Monday of May.

For all these celebrations, however, Memorial Day is meant to be a solemn time to honor those Americans who were killed in action during wartime. On Memorial Day, flags are supposed to be flown at half-staff until noon as a symbol of mourning, and Americans are asked to have a moment of silence and remembrance at 3 p.m. At national cemeteries, the graves of fallen soldiers are decorated with flags in honor of the sacrifices made by those buried there.

The idea of honoring war dead with a special, solemn day of mourning seems like a natural, human one to have. Ancient civilizations like the Greeks and Romans were known to have held special days of remembrance for their war dead. The Netherlands, Germany, Israel, and South Korea have similar holidays on their calendars for honoring their war dead. Australia and New Zealand hold ANZAC Day in honor of their fallen soldiers from the Battle of Gallipoli in World War I to the present. Speaking of World War I, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting in that conflict is celebrated around the world.

The American version has its origins in the aftermath of our Civil War. This traumatic conflict shook the nation to its core, and so it makes sense that people in many parts of the country would spontaneously hold ceremonies to honor their fallen. One of the earliest of these was held in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865, before the war had technically ended. On that day, a crowd of former slaves that had just been freed, accompanied by a unit of African-American Union soldiers, gathered at a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp to honor those Union troops that had died in enemy custody. Another early tribute was held on April 25, 1866 in Columbus, Mississippi by women who decided to decorate the graves of soldiers that had died in the Battle of Shiloh.

That spring of 1866 saw numerous similar ceremonies held in cities and towns in both north and south, many of whom claim to be the “original” home of Memorial Day. Personally, I think that the desire to honor locals and relatives that had been killed in battle by their loved ones was so universal and powerful that nobody could truly claim to have originated the idea. Yet, in 1966 Congress passed a law declaring the ceremony held in Waterloo, New York on May 5, 1866 to be the first. I imagine that didn’t go over well in the other claimant towns.

Regardless, in 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, a Union commander who was now serving in Congress and head of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ organization, declared May 30 to be “Decoration Day”, a day where the G.A.R. and its affiliated organizations would hold ceremonies to decorate the graves and honor the sacrifices of those who died in the conflict. The date was chosen specifically to avoid being in reference to any particular battle during the war, thus making it feel more inclusive of all soldiers. The holiday became popular throughout the north, with most northern states making it an official state holiday by 1890.

In the south, however, hard feelings caused many to reject this Union holiday, and southern states insisted on holding their own Confederate Memorial Day, which varied from state to state but was usually in April, and was NEVER on May 30. Many southerners even claimed that the northern holiday was actually a blatant rip-off of theirs. To this day, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas all still honor Confederate soldiers on this day, a fact that is rather controversial in those states.

Then, in 1917, the United States entered World War I. More than 4.7 million Americans served during that war and 116,516 of those died. It was after this conflict that the idea arose to use Decoration Day to not only honor those that died during the Civil War, but those that died in the Great War as well. After World War II, Memorial Day, as it had come to be known by that point, honored all Americans who died in any war. This helped to make the holiday popular nationwide, rather than just in the Union states.

Even so, the day wasn’t officially made a federal holiday until 1971. By then, its date had been moved to accommodate the Uniform Monday Holidays Act, a law that was meant to minimize disruptions to businesses, government agencies, and schools by having most federal holidays always fall on Mondays rather than a specific date. Thus, it was reasoned, there would be fewer awkward days off in the middle of the week, and in their place, the three-day weekend was created. So, rather than declaring May 30 to be Memorial Day, the federal law names “the last Monday in May” as the day that the federal holiday falls.

Today, there are many military and ceremonial traditions associated with Memorial Day and its role as a day to honor our nation’s greatest heroes. In addition to flying the flag at half-staff and having a moment of silence, some will wear red poppies to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died. Many communities will hold a Memorial Day Parade to celebrate the freedoms that they won for Americans. And, of course, there is the tradition that started it all: decorating war graves.

Memorial Day is far more than just a day off from work and school and an excuse to party. It is an important day that should be respected, as a day to pay respects to those who died so we can enjoy the freedoms we often take for granted. Hopefully, we will all remember that this year, and every year.

Memorial Day image by Karen Arnold

One Response to Why do we honor Memorial Day?

  1. Ramona Hedges says:

    My relatives in Ohio & Kentucky still call it Decoration Day. Great article-thanks!

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