On Memorial Day we honor the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. This day is observed by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.
By the time the American Civil War had ended in the spring of 1865, more lives had been claimed than in any other conflict is U.S. history. This required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. By the late 1860s, various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
While it is unclear where this tradition had originated, what with numerous different communities independently initiating the memorial gatherings, Waterloo, New York was declared the official birthplace of Memorial Day by the federal government in 1966. Waterloo – which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866 – was chosen because it hosted an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. General Logan chose May 30th and called it Decoration Day. The date was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle.
On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and by 1890, each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.
Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually became to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. However during World War I, the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict. The holiday grew to commemorate all American military personnel who died in any war.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30th, the date General Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. This change, that went into effect in 1971, also declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday.
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