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:
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.
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.
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.
This tradition continues to thrive in cemeteries of all sizes across the country.
Until World War I, Civil War soldiers were only honored on this holiday. Now all Americans who have served are being watched.
At least 25 places across the North and South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Some states claiming ownership of origins include Illinois, Georgia, Virginia and Pennsylvania, according to Veterans Affairs.
Despite conflicting claims, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day on May 30, 1966, after Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s declaration that same year. The New York community officially honored local veterans on May 5, 1866 by closing businesses and lowering flags at half mast.
What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?
Memorial Day and Veterans Day both honor the sacrifices made by American veterans, but have different purposes.
Veterans Day, originally called “Armistice Day”, is a younger holiday created in 1926 to commemorate all those who served in the United States Armed Forces during World War I.
Memorial Day honors all those who have died.
Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11 to signify the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I in 1918.
After World War II, the purpose of Armistice Day expanded and changed in 1954 to recognize those who served in all of America’s wars.
Why is Memorial Day in May?
The day we celebrate Memorial Day is believed to be influenced by U.S. Representative from Illinois, John A. Logan, who was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat in November 1858 and served as an officer in the Mexican War.
Logan, a staunch supporter of the Union, is said to have thought Memorial Day should occur when flowers are in full bloom across the country, according to the National Museum of the US Army.
Congress passed a law making May 30 a statutory holiday in the District of Columbia in 1888, according to the US Congressional Research Service.
Now Memorial Day is observed as the last Monday in May.
In 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act – which created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance and encourages all to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence – was signed into law by Congress and the President.
More coverage by USA TODAY
The lives of Japanese Americans during World War II mass incarceration are featured in rare footage by Ansel Adams
50 years since the withdrawal of American combat troops from South Vietnam: a look back in pictures
First World War: photos of the “Great War” that shaped the 20th century
‘We knew our end had come’: 80 years later, remember the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Uprising
The Mexican-American War: Photos from the 1800s show the conflict of a young nation
‘You caused this’: As Finland joins NATO, see 1939 Soviet-Finnish war amid threats of ‘retaliation’ from Russia