Memorial Day, as a formal holiday, is an American holiday. It is celebrated to remember military service members who have died in the line of duty. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, as the holiday was centered on decorating the graves of those who had fallen in the Civil War.
There is much debate as to the location where Memorial Day originated from. Sometime during the late years of the Civil War (1861 – 1865), groups began decorating the graves of their loved ones who had died in battle. Depending on the source, there are perhaps over a dozen locations that claim to be the town where the practice began being observed – the birthplace of Memorial Day. Some of these towns include Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois.
There is evidence that the tradition could have started in towns in either the North or the South. VA.gov states that on April 25, 1866, in Columbus, Mississippi, a local group of women went to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers. They noticed barren graves of Union soldiers and decided to place flowers there in remembrance. Another site, usmemorialday.org, states that a hymn published in 1867 called “Kneel Where Our Loved Ones are Sleeping” carried a dedication “To the Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead”. Wikipedia says that by 1865 the practice was already widespread in the North. It is likely that the tradition began in many locations independently, with many variations on the same idea. Over time, as word spread, these traditions could have expanded from town to town.
In 1866, in a town in New York called Waterloo, a drugstore owner named Henry Welles suggested that the town shops close on May 5 to commemorate the soldiers buried at Waterloo Cemetery who had died during the Civil War. Two years later in Waterloo, on May 5, 1868, General John Logan issued a declaration that Decoration Day should be observed nationwide. The declaration said that May 30th would be designated as a day to decorate the graves of “comrades who died in defense of their country.” According to History.com, President James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery on that day. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson and the Congress of the United States stated that Waterloo was the official birthplace of Memorial Day, and the official date of origin was May 30, 1868.
In 1882, the name of the holiday was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day. After World War I, the holiday was expanded to remember soldiers from all American Wars. In 1971, Richard Nixon made Memorial Day a national holiday that was to be celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Memorial Day Today
Today Memorial Day is celebrated across the United States. Regardless of where it originated, it is an important holiday that remembers those that died for the country, and serves to remind people of the costly price of war. There are many formal ceremonies that take place in observance. Most of these are held in local communities, and can be found by contacting a local Veterans of Foreign Wars office or local city government agency. A few traditional events are listed below.
Laying of the wreath at Arlington Cemetary – Often, the President of the United States will lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery on the annual observance of Memorial Day. This will usually be accompanied by a speech.
Rememberance and Moments of Silence – People nationwide participate in parades and still partake in decorating graves with wreaths or flowers. Many people will pause for moments of silence in memoriam.
Movies to watch on Memorial Day
- The Great Escape (1963) – Starring Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner
- Heartbreak Ridge (1986) – Clint Eastwood
- The Dirty Dozen (1967) – Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson
- Saving Private Ryan (1998) – Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Paul Giamatti
- Memphis Belle (1990) – Sean Astin, Harry Connick Jr.
- Platoon (1986) – Charlie Sheen, Willem DaFoe, Tom Berenger
- Forrest Gump (1994) – Tom Hanks
When is Memorial Day?
Memorial Day is a floating holiday, and always falls on the last Monday of May in the United States.