Did you know that Memorial Day wasn’t always called Memorial Day? If you ask your parents or grandparents they might remember the holiday  being called Decoration Day. It wasn’t until 1967 that the holiday became officially known as Memorial Day. It was established as a federal holiday on May 13th, 1938 and is celebrated on the last Monday in May. In this blog post we’ll talk about the history of Memorial Day and its origins in Decoration Day, and some ways that people celebrate the holiday that carry on the original spirit of honoring those who died in military service.

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While today Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start to summer and celebrated with BBQ’s, swimming, and sales, the original intent of the holiday is to celebrate those who have died in military service to the United States. It was originally called Decoration Day because the primary activity of the day was decorating the graves of fallen soldiers.

Beginning during the Civil War, women in both the North and the South began decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. They would decorate the graves with flowers, flags, and other festive items. These acts of service towards both sides inspired Francis Miles Finch to write a poem called “The Blue and the Gray” for the Atlantic Monthly, which spread the popularity of decorating graves throughout the United States. The first official Decoration Day observance took place on the 13th of May 1868, after a proclamation by Union General John A. Logan. Logan’s wife urged her husband to proclaim a day to decorate the graves of the fallen after she had returned from visit friends in the south and observed the tradition firsthand. 

No one knows for sure when or where the tradition of decorating soldiers graves started.  Cities in both the North and the South claim to have been the first, but the city of Waterloo, NY received the official recognition from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. However, there is one early documented celebration that truly captured the spirit of Decoration Day, and was quite likely the first Decoration Day celebration following the end of the Civil War.

By April of 1865, many of the Confederate supporters had left Charleston, SC, leaving tens of thousands of newly freed enslaved people, abolitionists, and others in the city. The Confederate army left behind a horse racing track at Hampton Park that they used as a jail for Union soldiers.  It was here that 257 soldiers died and were hastily buried in a mass graves. The newly freed people, along with the abolitionists and others who remained the city, wanted to honor the sacrifice of the Union soldiers and took it upon themselves to rebury all of the soldiers into individual graves with headstones, as well as build a fence and a gate for the new cemetery. On May 1, after all the work had been finished, a parade of over 10,000 people marched to the new cemetery, called “Martyrs of the Race Course,” and decorated the graves with flowers and flags.  They sang patriotic songs and held picnics while listening to speeches and watching Union Soldiers perform drills. Whether or not this was the very first celebration of Decoration Day after the Civil War, the importance of this selfless act and show of gratitude cannot be understated.  Read more about this unfortunately relatively unknown event in A Day for Remembering: Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson.

After World War One, many people wanted a way to honor those who had died in the war, and Decoration Day came to honor those who died in all wars, not just the Civil War. Many people still decorated the graves of fallen soldiers and the red poppy became a popular choice, as they grew wild on the battlefields in France and Belgium. Taken by the symbolism and beauty of the red poppy, efforts were made to sell red poppies in the US and France to raise money for those in the regions affected by the war. Since 1924, the American Legion Auxiliary has distributed millions of paper poppies, handmade by veterans, for donations to support military families around the world. Today, the legion celebrates National Poppy Day on the Friday before Memorial Day, distributing millions of poppies to raise money for veterans and active duty military families. You don’t have to be a member of the American Legion Auxiliary in order to raise awareness. Check out their blog post on some ways to create and share your own poppies. 

Today, many people still celebrate Memorial Day as a day to commemorate fallen soldiers, prisoners of war, and those who went missing action and were never found. Rolling Thunder, an annual motorcycle demonstration and protest that began in 1988, brings awareness to prisoners of war and those missing in action who were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. Many people, including members of the government, will visit  The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and participate in a wreath laying ceremony. Still others will visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Many military cemeteries will ask for volunteers to help put flags or wreaths at each grave – see if there’s one near you to participate in.

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