How much do you know about the history and purpose of Memorial Day? Most adults in this country admit they don’t know that Memorial Day was established to honor those who died fighting the nation’s wars.
In fact, a survey commissioned by The National WWII Museum in Washington, D.C., indicates that 46 percent of those quizzed said they “know something about the holiday,” with another 31 percent admitting they knew very little about it. And 3 percent said they didn’t have a clue. Only 20 percent of respondents said they’re very familiar with the day’s purpose.
While there will always be disagreement over the exact details, Memorial Day followed on the heels of Decoration Day — a widespread tradition in the North and South of decorating graves after the Civil War. Back on May 5, 1868 — three years after the end of the Civil War —an organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared the special day should be observed on May 30. Many believe that date was strategically selected because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day, because a ceremony held there back on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or just one-time events.
By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities.
It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was at that time that the day was established on the last Monday in May, conforming to some other federal holidays.
The origins of honoring a nation’s war dead can be found back as far as the Athenian leader Pericles, who offered a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War over 24 centuries ago. That tribute could be applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in our nation’s wars: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten,. Congress passed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act” in December 2000, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance. The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a moment of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
This year, remember to take this time to pay tribute to the sacrifices paid to keep freedom free.