Do You Know the Meaning of Memorial Day?
Here’s 15 History Facts behind the Holiday
Brush up on your Memorial Day knowledge with these interesting facts.
What’s Memorial Day? It’s easy to forget, but Memorial Day weekend is much more than an extra day off work to spend hosting a backyard barbecue or taking a day trip with the family. Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died
while serving in the U.S. military. The holiday, which is observed on the last Monday of May every year, Memorial Day 2019 occurs on Monday, May 27, 2019. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, it marks the beginning
of the summer season. Although you probably know the special day honors those who lost their lives serving in the U.S. military, you might be unaware of the origins behind the day of remembrance. Here are nine
fascinating facts about Memorial Day.
1. Memorial Day celebrations might have started in ancient times.
Way back in 431 B.C., soldiers killed in the Peloponnesian War were honored with a public funeral and speech given by Greek statesman Pericles, according to History.com. This is thought to be the first communal ceremony of recognizing those who had given their life in war. Year after year, ancient
Greeks and Romans hosted similar commemorations.
2. One of the first Memorial Day celebrations in the United States was by newly freed slaves on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Not long after the Civil War ended, about 1,000 freed slaves, members of the U.S. Colored Troops, and some locals organized a ceremony to bury Union troops who died due to horrendous conditions of a prison created at what was once a racetrack, History.com reports. They honored the dead by
singing hymns and placing flowers on their graves. An archway over the cemetery was engraved with the words “Martyrs of the Race Course”, according to The New York Times.
3. The observance was originally known as Decoration Day. It originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.
By the late 1860s, many Americans had begun hosting tributes to the wars fallen soldiers by decorating their graves and with flowers and flags. It gradually came to be known as Memorial Day over the years.
4. It was Union General John A. Logan who called for an official nationwide day of remembrance on May 30, 1868, a date chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of a particular battle.
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. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.
5. Meant to honor those lost in the Civil War, the southern states originally observed a different day to honor the Confederate soldiers who died. In the aftermath of World War I, the holiday evolved to commemorate fallen military personnel in all wars. Currently, 11 states still set an official day to honor
those who lost their lives fighting for the Confederacy—Virginia is the only one that observes Confederate Memorial Day on the same day as Memorial Day.
6. In 1950, Congress passed a resolution requesting that the President issue a proclamation calling on Americans to observe Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace. 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. But Memorial Day didn’t actually become an official federal holiday until 1971.
7. In 1966, Waterloo, New York was officially declared the originator of Memorial Day. Many places in the U.S. claim to be the first to celebrate Memorial Day, but there’s only one small town officially identified as the birthplace. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation stating that Waterloo, New York, is the originator of Memorial Day in the U.S. The town first observed a day to remember fallen soldiers on May 5, 1866.
8. Did you know? Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have
independently initiated the memorial gatherings. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day. 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.
9. President Bill Clinton signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000, which asks Americans to pause and observe a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time. A number of organizations throughout the country observe this moment, including Amtrak (whose trains blast their whistles), Major League Baseball, and NASCAR.
10. Cities across the country host Memorial Day parades, but some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York, and, of course, Washington D.C. In D.C., the National Memorial Day Parade hosts an audience exceeding 250,000, who watches as marching bands, active duty and retired military units, youth groups, veterans, and floats head down Constitution Avenue.
11. The President requests that all governors of the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico direct the flag to be flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels. U.S. citizens are asked to display the flag at half-staff from their homes before noon, as well.
12. Memorial Day, as Decoration Day gradually came to be known, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I the United States found itself embroiled in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
13. For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date 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; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
14. Memorial Day Traditions-Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades each year, often incorporating military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations. Some of the largest parades take place in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
15. Americans also observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. Some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those fallen in war—a tradition that began with a World War I poem. On a less somber note, many people take weekend trips or throw parties and barbecues on the
holiday, perhaps because it unofficially marks the beginning of summer.