What is Memorial Day? Meaning, history and why we celebrate in the United States

No, Memorial Day is not about a long weekend on the road, a backyard barbecue, or sales. The real meaning of the national holiday is much darker.

Originally called Decoration Day, the Monday holiday honors all soldiers who have died in service to the nation.

Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress in 1971, and its roots date back to the Civil War era, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Unlike Veterans Day, Memorial Day honors all service members who died while serving in the United States forces.

Ahead of this year’s holiday, here are some Memorial Day facts you might not know:

Army Specialist Jose Ortiz awaits orders on where to place the flags as members of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, also known as the Old Guard, place flags in front of each stone grave as part of the "flags in" ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Thursday, May 27, 2021. "It means a lot," he said," It's great to be here because there are a lot of families who don't have the chance to be here.  I take great pride in it.  Placing every flag on every stone feels good."

What is Memorial Day and why do we celebrate it?

The origins of the holiday date back to local observances for soldiers with neglected graves during the Civil War.

According to some historians, the first observance of what would become Memorial Day took place in Charleston, South Carolina, at the site of a horse racing track that the Confederates had turned into a prison holding prisoners of the Union. Blacks in the city held a funeral for deceased Union prisoners and built a fence around the site, Yale historian David Blight wrote in The New York Times in 2011.

Then, on May 1, 1865, they held an event there that included a parade—black people who fought in the Civil War participated—spiritual readings and singing, and picnics. A commemorative plaque was erected there in 2010.

A marker in Hampton Park in Charleston, SC, shown in this May 23, 2011 photo, commemorates the 1865 tribute to Union soldiers who died at a Confederate POW camp at the site.  Some historians argue that the event in the city where the Civil War began marks the first celebration of Memorial Day in the United States.

One of the first Decorating Days was held in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866 by women who decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers who perished in the Battle of Shiloh with flowers.

On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, the tradition of laying flowers at veterans’ graves was continued with the establishment of Decorating Day by an organization of veterans of the Union, the Grand Army of the Republic.

Barbara Miller touches the headstone of her late husband, Eugene Lee Bowers, before the start of a Memorial Day ceremony May 30, 2005, at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.  Bowers died in 1973 and served in the US Army during the Korean War.  Miller, who lives in Liberty, Mo., attended the ceremony with her children and grandchildren.

General Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first major celebration, a crowd of approximately 5,000, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 30, 1873.

The orphan children of soldiers and sailors killed during the war placed flowers and small American flags at Union and Confederate graves throughout the cemetery.

The stereograph shows President Ulysses S. Grant and General John Logan seated at the Old Flag-Draped Amphitheater in Arlington Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, for the Decoration Day ceremonies on May 30, 1873.

USA Today

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