History of Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, businesses are closed and people everywhere are celebrating the unofficial start of summer. We’re also pausing to remember what it took to get us where we are. Today is a Memorial to the countless dead veterans of our military.

Decorations Day

In the 1860s as the American Civil War’s death count began to soar, cities and town across the US began holding memorials in the spring to mark the graves of the fallen with wreathes, flowers, flags, and other items to honor their sacrifice. These local events could occur at any time, there was no national holiday yet.

In the northern states, General John A. Logan would call for a day to honor the fallen, a Day of Decoration. He placed it on the last day of May, 1868. This would spread until most northern states had adopted the day as a state holiday. The southern states however, would largely continue to celebrate the day on a local-only level.

For nearly sixty years, the Civil War would reign as the United States’ deadliest confrontation. No other event up to then, not even the Revolutionary War left so many dead in its wake. Not until the World Wars started. With the country embattled around the world, the early 1900s saw Decorations Day/Memorial Day expand, not as just a memorial to the fallen of the Civil War, but a day to all fallen soldiers.

A National Holiday

By the mid 20th century, most states had their own observances for Memorial Day, around the end of May, but it still wasn’t a Federal Holiday. That would require some paperwork in congress. It took until 1971 for the Federal Government to declare Memorial Day a nation-wide holiday, fixing it to the last Monday of May. This created a three day weekend for Federal Workers.


For those outside the United States, we have a few ways to celebrate. Our flags fly at half-staff to mark the day. We’ll typically hold parades and memorial services in our town cemeteries in the mornings, visit grave sites, and leave small gifts for those who’ve died, flowers, flags, solar powered lights, and whatever is fitting. It can be an emotional time. In my town, we play taps, with three buglers spread out on a hill, playing it so it seems to be a fading echo.

By the afternoon, we’re at our grills as the mood changes to one of celebration. Celebrating the summer. Most schools will finish their classes around this time, some already have. Families use this day to kick off the start of their vacationing season.

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