The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend.
|Date||Last Monday in May|
|2012 date||May 28|
|2013 date||May 27|
|2014 date||May 26|
|Observances||Remembrance of American war dead|
Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday which occurs every year on the final Monday of May. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died while in the military service. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.
Many people visit cemeteries and memorials, particularly to honor those who have died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.
By the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events.
Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are held on a Sunday in late spring or early summer in some rural areas of the American South, notably in the mountains. In cases involving a family graveyard where remote ancestors as well as those who were deceased more recently are buried, this may take on the character of an extended family reunion to which some people travel hundreds of miles. People gather on the designated day and put flowers on graves and renew contacts with kinfolk and others. There often is a religious service and a "dinner on the ground," the traditional term for a potluck meal in which people used to spread the dishes out on sheets or tablecloths on the grass. It is believed that this practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the "memorial day" idea.
Memorial Day is not to be confused with Veterans Day; Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, living or dead.
Early history 
The practice of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers is an ancient custom. Soldiers' graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the American Civil War. A claim was made in 1906 that the first Civil War soldier's grave ever decorated was in Warrenton, Virginia on June 3, 1861, implying the first Memorial Day occurred there. There is authentic documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia decorated soldiers' graves in 1862. In 1863, the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Local historians in Boalsburg, PA, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers' graves on July 4, 1864. As a result, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The first well-known observance of a Memorial Day-type observance after the Civil War was in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865. During the war, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Charleston Race Course; at least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. Together with teachers and missionaries, blacks in Charleston organized a May Day ceremony in 1865, which was covered by the New York Tribune and other national papers. The freedmen had cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground, building an enclosure and an arch labeled, "Martyrs of the Race Course." Nearly ten thousand people, mostly freedmen, gathered on May 1 to commemorate the dead. Involved were 3,000 schoolchildren newly enrolled in freedmen's schools, mutual aid societies, Union troops, and black ministers and white northern missionaries. Most brought flowers to lay on the burial field. Today the site is used as Hampton Park. Years later, the celebration would come to be called the "First Decoration Day" in the North.
David W. Blight described the day:
"This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the War had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.”
Blight admitted, however, that he "has no evidence" that this event in Charleston led to the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.
The sheer number of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, who perished in the civil war meant that burial and memorialization would take on new cultural significance. Particularly under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had already taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began a program of creating national military cemeteries for the Union dead.
In the North 
On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic - the organization for Union Civil War veterans - General John A. Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" should be observed nationwide and annually. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; according to folklore, the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle. According to the White House, the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near the battlefields and therefore mostly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
The Memorial Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the War - and at first to rehash the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the "baptism of blood" on the battlefield. By the end of the 1870s much of the rancor was gone, and the speeches praised the brave soldiers both Blue and Gray. By the 1950s, the theme was American exceptionalism and duty to uphold freedom in the world.
Ironton, Ohio, lays claim to the nation's oldest continuously running Memorial Day parade. Its first parade was held May 5, 1868, and the town has held it every year since. However, the Memorial Day parade in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, predates Ironton's by one year.
In the South 
Evidence exists showing that General John A. Logan adopted for the North the pre-existing annual Confederate Memorial Day custom that had already been in place in the South since 1866. The U.S. National Park Service attributes the beginning of the practice to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. This separate tradition of Memorial Day observance which emerged earlier in the South was linked to the Lost Cause and served as the prototype for the national day of memory. Historians acknowledge that the Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in that development. Starting in 1866, the Southern states established Confederate Memorial Day. Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in the different Southern states. By 1916, the June 3 birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was observed as a state holiday in 10 southern states. Across the South, associations were founded after the War, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for Confederate soldiers, organize commemorative ceremonies and sponsor impressive monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate cause and tradition. The most important was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women by World War I. They were "strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks."
On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers at the graves of both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries. Around 1890, there was a shift from this consolatory emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate cause. Changes in the ceremony's hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Lost Cause.
At Gettysburg 
The ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park became nationally well known, starting in 1868. In July 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the Civil War's bloodiest and most famous battle.
The four-day "Blue-Gray Reunion" featured parades, re-enactments, and speeches from a host of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected to the White House since the War. James Heflin of Alabama was given the honor of the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; two of his best-known speeches were an endorsement of the Lincoln Memorial and his call to make Mother's Day a holiday. His choice as Memorial Day speaker was criticized, as he was opposed for his racism. His speech was moderate in tone and stressed national unity and goodwill, which gained praise from newspapers.
Name and date 
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from "Decoration Day" to "Memorial Day", which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years.
Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date, although the significance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:
Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
Traditional observance 
On Memorial Day the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon. It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.
The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.
The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.
For many Americans, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities all over the country. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the National Guard and other servicemen participating along with veterans and military vehicles from various wars.
One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, an auto race which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911. It runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976.
Scholars, following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular "civil religion" - one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint - that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. The obligation of both collective and individual to carry out God's will on earth is a theme that lies deep in the American tradition. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.
In literature and music 
Charles Ives's symphonic poem Decoration Day depicted the holiday as he experienced it in his childhood, with his father's band leading the way to the town cemetery, the playing of "Taps" on a trumpet, and a livelier march tune on the way back to the town. It is frequently played with three other Ives works based on holidays as the second movement of A New England Holidays Symphony. There is also Memorial Day (2012 film) starring James Cromwell, Jonathan Bennett and John Cromwell.
See also 
- A Great Jubilee Day first held the last Monday in May 1783 (Revolutionary War)
- ANZAC Day an analogous observance in Australia and New Zealand on the 25 April every year
- Armistice Day
- Confederate Memorial Day
- Heroes' Day
- Nora Fontaine Davidson, credited with the first Memorial Day ceremony in Petersburg, Virginia
- Patriot Day
- United States military casualties of war
- Victoria Day an analogous late-May observance in Canada
- Veterans Day
- 36 U.S.C. § 116
- "Memorial Day". United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved 2010-05-28.
- See Jabbour and Jabbour (2010).
- The Ladies Garland, p. 296
- In 1817, for example, a writer in the Analectic Magazine of Philadelphia urged the decoration of patriot’s graves. E.J., “The Soldier’s Grave,” in The Analectic Magazine (1817), Vol. 10, 264.
- Times-Dispatch, 1906
- ""A Beautiful Tribute," Savannah Republican, July 21, 1862". .uttyler.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
- "Sophie Keller Hall, in The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols., ed. J. W. Muffly (Des Moines: The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co., 1904), quoted in editor’s note, p. 45". Civilwarcenter.olemiss.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
- "Boalsburg.com". Boalsburg.com. 1997-03-26. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
- Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), ch. 3, "Decoration Days", pp. 67-70
- Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001, 2nd printing), ch. 3, "Decoration Days", pp. 67-70
- Blight, David W., Lecture: "To Appomattox and Beyond,"
- David Blight, cited by Campbell Robertson, "Birthplace of Memorial Day," New York Times, May 28, 2012 - Link is first of two web pages - Blight quote from 2nd web page: "He has called that the first Memorial Day, as it predated most of the other contenders, though he said he has no evidence that it led to General Logan’s call for a national holiday."
- Joan Waugh; Gary W. Gallagher (1 June 2009). Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the American Civil War. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-8078-3275-2.
- Alan Jabbour; Karen Singer Jabbour (31 May 2010). Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-8078-3397-1. Retrieved 28 May 2012.
- Hennig Cohen; Tristram Potter Coffin (1991). The Folklore of American holidays. Gale Research. p. 215.
- Barack Obama, Weekly Address, May 29, 2010, transcript
- "Doylestown Hosts Oldest Memorial Day Parade in the Country". CBS News. 29 May 2011.
- Mrs. Logan's Memoirs, p. 246
- New York Times, May 27, 2012
- National Park Service, "Flowers For Jennie" Retrieved June 1, 2012
- Lucian Lamar Knight, "Memorial Day: Its True History". Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-05-28.
- Karen L. Cox (2003). Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. University Press of Florida. p. 11.
- W. Stuart Towns (9 January 2012). Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause. University of Alabama Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-8173-1752-2.
- Blight (2001), Race and Reunion, pp. 272-273
- "Did You Know? Little known Mississippi Facts". US Genealogy Network. Retrieved 2010-05-28.
- University of Michigan; EBSCO Publishing (Firm) (2000). America, history and life. Clio Press. p. 190.
- David W. Blight (2001). Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Harvard U.P. p. 265.
- Warren Leon; Roy Rosenzweig (1 June 1989). History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. University of Illinois Press. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-252-06064-9.
- Glenn W. LaFantasie (1 March 2008). Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground. Indiana University Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-253-35071-8.
- Henry Perkins Goddard; Calvin Goddard Zon (2008). The Good Fight That Didn't End: Henry P. Goddard's Accounts of Civil War and Peace. Univ of South Carolina Press. p. 285. ISBN 978-1-57003-772-6.
- Alan Axelrod (1 June 2007). Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps. Globe Pequot. p. 233. ISBN 978-1-59921-025-4.
- Public Law 90-363
- Mechant, David (April 28, 2007). "Memorial Day History". Retrieved 2010-05-28.
- E.g., 112th Congress (2011-2012), S.70
- Peggy Post; Anna Post; Lizzie Post; Daniel Post Senning (15 November 2011). Emily Post's Etiquette, 18. HarperCollins. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-06-210127-3.
- Congress (22 October 2009). United States Code, 2006, Supplement 1, January 4, 2007 to January 8, 2008. Government Printing Office. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-16-083512-4.
- Kevin J. Carnahan (1 May 2004). Outdoor Escapes Washington, D.C.: A Four-Season Guide. Globe Pequot. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-7627-3056-8.
- Alan Wilson (1 October 2011). Driven by Desire: The Desire Wilson Story. Veloce Publishing Ltd. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-84584-389-2.
- "Memorial Day Cooking", Allrecipes.com
- William H. Swatos; Peter Kivisto (1998). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Rowman Altamira. pp. 49–50.
- Marcela Cristi (2001). From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics. Wilfrid Laurier U.P. pp. 48–53.
- William M. Epstein (2002). American Policy Making: Welfare As Ritual. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 99.
- Corwin E. Smidt; Lyman A. Kellstedt; James L. Guth (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics. Oxford Handbooks Online. pp. 142–3.
- Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America", Daedalus 1967 96(1): 1–21.
Further reading 
- Albanese, Catherine. "Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation", American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 386–398 in JSTOR
- Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America". Daedalus 1967 96(1): 1–21. online edition
- Blight, David W. "Decoration Day: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South" in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (2004), online edition pp 94–129; the standard scholarly history
- Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2000) ch. 3, "Decorations" excerpt and text search
- Buck, Paul H. The Road to Reunion, 1865–1900 (1937)
- Cherry, Conrad. "Two American Sacred Ceremonies: Their Implications for the Study of Religion in America", American Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter, 1969), pp. 739–754 in JSTOR
- Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002)
- Jabbour, Alan, and Karen Singer Jabbour. Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians (University of North Carolina Press; 2010)
- Myers, Robert J. "Memorial Day". Chapter 24 in Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. (1972)
- Robert Haven Schauffler (1911). Memorial Day: Its Celebration, Spirit, and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse, with a Non-sectional Anthology of the Civil W. BiblioBazaar reprint 2010.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Memorial Day|
- 36 USC 116. Memorial Day (designation law)
- United States Department of Veterans Affairs
- In Memory of Our Honored Dead, US Memorial Day
- National Moment of Remembrance Home Page
- National Memorial Day Museum website
- National Memorial Day Concert site
- The History of Memorial Day