Memorial Day: Origins and Importance of Remembrance

Updated May 12, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

While the beginning of summer might signal the imminence of flipping burgers on the grill and hosting tailgates or patio parties, it is also an important time for us to remember the millions of men and women who have lost their lives during service to the country; which is why Memorial Day is an essential part of the calendar.

Let us take a moment to explore the backstory behind the holiday, its importance, and its traditions, so that you can have a knowledgeable and happy Memorial Day!

The History of Memorial Day 

While ancient civilizations certainly had holidays to honor those fallen in battle and deceased loved ones, the idea of a national holiday for the commemoration of wartime casualties in the modern world was born after the American Civil War and the vast bloodshed that occurred there.

The Earliest Memorial Day Observances

Along with many other changes in the national consciousness, Memorial Day as we know it has roots in the ending of the Civil War lasting from April 1861 to 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army on April 9.

Though an official day of remembrance was not yet established directly after the close of the Civil War, men and women across the United States recognized the gravity of the conflict that had just occurred and the staggering number of people who had been killed.

Because of this, many observances were created as the nation struggled to bury and honor the dead of both sides that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. One such instance took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865

This event was made up of a crowd of primarily freed slaves, who gave mass-interred Union soldiers and prisoners proper burials and a parade to honor their memory and sacrifice during the war. 

Additionally, hymns honoring the fallen were routinely published in the aftermath of the Civil War, including 1867’s commemorative “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” and “Memorial Flowers”.

Another influential remembrance ceremony preceding the official holiday was held in Waterloo, New York, where local shops closed their doors on May 5, 1866, and spent the day honoring the dead, including laying flowers, wreaths, and boughs of greenery.

Decoration Day

The observance of this holiday was originally known as Decoration Day and was held on May 30, 1868.

This date was carefully arranged by the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John A. Logan, on a day that was not an anniversary of any particular Civil War battle to keep the observance as neutral as possible for both the Northern states and Southern states, still in the early stages of peace.

The first Decoration Day honored the Union and Confederate soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict and many gathered in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, where the fallen soldiers were buried for a speech by President James Garfield. General Logan also issued a proclamation called General Order Number 11, which stated the day was “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves”.

Instituting Memorial Day

Though the first commemoration days were to honor the Civil War dead, by the 20th century, it became clear that wars and further combat casualties were not just a thing of the past. 

As such, it became Memorial Day, a time to mourn all Americans who have died during military service to their country– including World War I, World War II, and other modern conflicts.

The national holiday as we know it came to be under President Lyndon B. Johnson, who issued a Presidential Proclamation on May 26, 1966, naming Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day, along with the Senate and Congress of Washington, D.C. signing it into effect.

Memorial Day Today 

This history of Memorial Day is important to understand, especially when considering the importance of this holiday in the modern world. But what about its significance on the calendar and in civic celebrations? The following are a few common queries that people have regarding Memorial day.

When is Memorial Day? 

In 1968, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was signed, moving Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Washington’s Birthday as separate days around the calendar, and making them into three-day-weekend Mondays for United States workers. This Act came into effect in 1971.

As such, the official day of remembrance on the Memorial Day weekend is observed on the last Monday of May, typically falling quite close to the original date of May 30th, depending on the year. In 2022, however, Memorial Day itself celebrates a milestone, as it has been 154 years since General Logan’s first observance of the holiday.

Is Memorial Day a Federal Holiday?

Thanks to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, the Monday of this long weekend is indeed a federal holiday in the United States, where Americans are encouraged to take the time to remember those who died for our freedom and our values, in wars both around the world and on native soil. Additionally, Memorial Day is considered the unofficial beginning of summer.

Why Is Memorial Day Important?

For cultures all over the world, a crucial part of learning from our history comes from remembering those who perished, particularly those who fought and died on behalf of their country and the people who live there.

By keeping the men and women who lost their lives in military service, a day of remembrance reminds us of the fragility of peace and why it is worth defending– a tenet of Memorial Day meaning. 

For paying the ultimate price of sacrifice, the brave individuals who served deserve to be kept alive in our hearts– including those who died decades ago. This is why no time limit on Memorial Day remembrance exists!

How To Honor Memorial Day

When it comes to ways of commemorating veterans who passed during combat, many traditions have extended over the years of observance.

The National Moment of Remembrance is held across the country to honor the fallen on Memorial Day. This takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time for one minute, when men and women gather to mourn the fallen in silence. Additionally, the American flag is flown at half-staff all around the United States from sunrise until noon, and some individuals choose to wear a red poppy to signify their respect.

And at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, the sitting President of the United States traditionally lays a wreath to commemorate those who lost their names as well as their lives– showing that they will not be forgotten, either.

If you are interested in reading more about US history and the traditions in place to honor those who passed during war, why not learn about Holocaust Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day, to discover more commemorative holidays– right here on Infoplease.


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