Memorial Day: What You Might Not Know

Riley Preiss, Staff Writer

Memorial Day to most of us signifies the beginning of summer. We get to bring out the white clothes (if you follow that fashion cliche) and remove the last of winter clothes from our closets because the weather is finally nice. The barbeques and two days off from school give us the taste of summer vacation that everyone is craving. However, have you ever thought about the true meaning behind the day?

In 1886 General John A. Logan, commander in-chief of the Union’s veteran group, “The Grand Army,” issued a decree that May 30th should be a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 men whose lives were lost in the Civil War. His idea was that Americans should lay flowers on and decorate the soldier’s graves. May 30th was allegedly chosen due to the fact that it was one of the few days in May not falling on the anniversary of a Civil War battle. The day was dubbed “Decoration Day” and the idea was most likely adapted from similar events that had been held for years commemorating the lives lost in the South. In fact, this southern tradition continues today: Nine southern states officially recognize a Confederate Memorial Day, with events held on Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday (June 3rd), the day on which General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was killed, to commemorate other symbolic events.

Up until 1971, Decoration Day was not a federal holiday. In 1886 the holiday was a success with more than 5,000 people in attendance at a ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery and approximately 27 states holding ceremonies of their own. By 1890, every former state of the Union had adopted it as an official holiday; however, for more than 50 years the holiday was solely held to remember the lives lost in the Civil War. It wasn’t until Work War I that the holiday was officially expanded to commemorate the lives of Americans killed in all wars. The US didn’t adopt it as a nationwide holiday until the 1970s, as a reaction to the counterwar movement surrounding US involvement in Vietnam.

In 1968, Decoration Day’s observance was changed from May 30th to the last Monday in May. This change was met with controversy because many veteran groups feel that Memorial Day is greater associated with the first long weekend of summer than its true intent. There is actually a rivalry between towns regarding where Decoration Day originated. More than 20 claim to be its “birthplace.”  However, only one has the federal seal of approval. In 1966, 100 years after the town of Waterloo, New York, first shuttered its businesses and took to the streets for the community-wide celebrations, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation passed by the U.S. Congress, declaring the tiny upstate village the “official” birthplace of Memorial Day. The term Memorial Day began to be used in the 1980s as the holiday became a bigger and more widely celebrated holiday.

Despite the recent association with Memorial Day weekend to a summer right of passage, there are many formal rituals Americans still adhere to, signifying the serious message behind Memorial Day. The American flag should be hung at half staff until noon on Memorial Day,  then raised to the top. As of 2000, the Government has encouraged Americans to pause for a moment of silence and remembrance at 3PM. While Memorial Day honors those whose lives were lost in service, many Memorial Day services have come to also incorporate current servicemen and military personnel into the commemoration efforts.


* photo via Google Images under the Creative Commons license