The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend.
|Official name||Memorial Day|
|Observed by||United States|
|Observances||Remembrance of American war dead|
|Date||Last Monday in May|
|2015 date||May 25|
|2016 date||May 30|
|2017 date||May 29|
|2018 date||May 28|
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The holiday, which is observed every year on the last Monday of May, originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service. It marks the start of the unofficial 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.
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 mountain areas. 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 relatives and others. There often is a religious service and a picnic-like "dinner on the grounds," the traditional term for a potluck meal at a church. 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.
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. Following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, there were a variety of events of commemoration. The sheer number of soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War (more than 600,000) meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government began creating national military cemeteries for the Union war dead.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper claimed in 1906 that Warrenton, Virginia, was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave ever to be decorated; the date cited was June 3, 1861. There is also documentation that women in Savannah, Georgia, decorated Confederate soldiers' graves in 1862. The 1863 cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was, of course, a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. In addition, local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claim that ladies there decorated soldiers' graves on July 4, 1864, and Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day. But more recent researches have also pointed to the birthplace of Confederacy as the location of the first post-war "Memorial Day" type observance.
Historian David W. Blight, citing an observance after the end of the Civil War in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, has claimed that "African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina," based on accounts in the Charleston Daily Courier and coverage by the New York Tribune. During the war, Blight writes, Union soldiers who were prisoners of war had been held at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club (now Hampton Park) in the Charleston "Neck." At least 257 Union prisoners died there and were hastily buried in unmarked graves. At the war's end, the African American residents of Charleston reinterred the dead, cleaned up and landscaped the burial ground within an enclosure, and erected an arch with the legend "Martyrs of the Race Course." They followed this with a ceremony of commemoration that was covered locally and by national papers.
A throng of nearly 10,000 people, including whites but mostly composed of freedmen, gathered in a magnificent procession around the race course on May 1 to give honor to the dead. The procession included 3,000 children newly enrolled in freedmen's schools and laden with roses, several hundred women bearing wreaths and crosses, as well as mutual aid societies, ministers and missionaries, and the members of the 54th Massachusetts and 34th and 104th U.S. Colored Troops. They sang spirituals and patriotic songs such as "John Brown's Body," "We'll Rally Round the Flag," and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and, in true Memorial Day fashion, spent the balance of the day picnicking while the troops marched in precision drills. Blight has noted that he "has no evidence" that the event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country. But course, neither do any of the many other claimants to the title of "the first Memorial Day."
Despite this ongoing lively debate, there is an "official" birthplace. On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title. This action followed House Concurrent Resolution 587, in which the 89th Congress had officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day had begun one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York.
In the North
Copying a practice that began in the Southern states, on May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the veterans' organization for Union Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide. It was observed for the first time that year on Saturday May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to the White House, the May 30 date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom.
Memorial 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 had followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C.
Memorial Day speeches 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.
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
In addition to the African American observances uncovered by Professor Blight, a parallel Memorial Day tradition has also been in practice in the South since 1866. The U.S. National Park Service, as well as numerous scholars, attribute its beginning to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. Originally called "Memorial Day," the Southern commemoration appended the label "Confederate" to the title when northerners co-opted the holiday in 1868. The tradition of observances which emerged in the South were linked to the "Lost Cause" and, before evidence emerged of Union-related observances that predated them, they were believed to have served as the prototype for the national day of memory embraced by the nation in 1868.
Specifically, on April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead in the city's cemetery. The early Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the lost 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.
Historians acknowledge the Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in these rituals of preservation of Confederate "memory." Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in different Southern states. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate dead. The most important of these 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."
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 after the War. James Heflin of Alabama gave 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 support of segregation; however, his speech was moderate in tone and stressed national unity and goodwill, gaining him 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. Memorial Day did not become the more common name until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967. On June 28, 1968, 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' 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.
Starting in 1987 Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. Inouye continued introducing the resolution until his death in 2012.
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. NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 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. The final of the NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship is currently held on Memorial Day.
In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers' graves in Flanders.
In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.
As civil religious holiday
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. 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 film, 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 Symphony: New England Holidays.
Poems commemorating Memorial Day include:
- Michael Anania's "Memorial Day" (1994)
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Decoration Day" (1882) 
- Joyce Kilmer's "Memorial Day"
Observance dates 1971–2099
- 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 April 25 every year
- Armistice Day
- Confederate Memorial Day
- Dodenherdenking ("Remembrance of the dead"), every year on May 5, commemorates all civilians and members of the armed forces of the Kingdom of the Netherlands who have died in wars or peacekeeping missions since the outbreak of World War II.
- Heroes' Day
- Nora Fontaine Davidson, credited with the first Memorial Day ceremony in Petersburg, Virginia
- Patriot Day
- Rudolf Anderson
- United States military casualties of war
- Remembrance Day, an analogous observance in Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other Commonwealth nations held on November 11 each year
- Veterans Day
- Volkstrauertag ( "People's Mourning Day" ), usually in November two Sundays ahead of 1. Advent, inaugurated in Germany in 1919 by the Weimar Republic, the German version of Memorial Day celebrated in the Weimar Republic and since 1949 in West Germany, a holiday with democratic context strictly different from the Imperial and Nazi-Era "Heldengedenktag", usually with a special event including the President in Bundestag
- "Memorial Day". United States Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
- 36 U.S.C. § 116
- Affairs, Office of Public and Intergovernmental. "Memorial Day History – Office of Public Affairs". va.gov.
- Yan, Holly. "Memorial Day 2016: What you need to know". CNN. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
- Alan Jabbour; Karen Singer Jabbour (May 31, 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 May 28, 2012.
- Kickler, Sarah (May 28, 2012). "Memorial Day vs. Veterans Day". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- Mary L'Hommedieu Gardiner (1842). "The Ladies Garland". J. Libby. p. 296. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
- 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.
- Joan Waugh; Gary W. Gallagher (June 1, 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.
- "Times-Dispatch, 1906". Perseus.tufts.edu. July 15, 1906. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- ""A Beautiful Tribute," Savannah Republican, July 21, 1862". .uttyler.edu. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
- "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 May 28, 2012.
- "Boalsburg.com". Boalsburg.com. March 26, 1997. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
- Blight, David W. "Lecture: To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings, Overview". Oyc.yale.edu. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
Professor Blight closes his lecture with a description of the first Memorial Day, celebrated by African Americans in Charleston, SC 1865.
- Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001), ch. 3, "Decoration Days", pp. 67–70
- David Blight, cited by Campbell Robertson, "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You're From," 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."
- Robertson, "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You're From"
- Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America (Columbus State University, 2014).
- Johnson, Lyndon. "Presidential Proclamation 3727". Retrieved May 27, 2013.
- General John Logan, quoted by his wife. Books.google.com. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- "A Complicated Journey: The Story of Logan and Memorial Day" Tom English, The Southern Illinoisian, May 22, 2015
- "Memorial Day's Roots Traced To Georgia" Michael Jones, Northwest Herald, May 23, 2015.
- Hennig Cohen; Tristram Potter Coffin (1991). The Folklore of American holidays. Gale Research. p. 215.
- "Barack Obama, Weekly Address, May 29, 2010, transcript". Whitehouse.gov. May 29, 2010. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- Blight (2004), pp.99–100
- "Interments in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemeteries" (PDF). Washington, DC: National Cemetery Administration – Department of Veterans Affairs VA-NCA-IS-1. January 2011.
After the Civil War, search and recovery teams visited hundreds of battlefields, churchyards, plantations and other locations seeking wartime interments that were made in haste. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Civil War dead were reinterred in 73 national cemeteries.
- Samito, Christian G. (2009). Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era. Cornell University Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-8014-4846-1. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
- "Doylestown Hosts Oldest Memorial Day Parade in the Country". CBS News. May 29, 2011.
- Mrs. Logan's Memoirs, p. 246. Books.google.com. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You're From". The New York Times. May 27, 2012.
- National Park Service, "Flowers For Jennie" Retrieved February 24, 2015
- Gary Gallagher, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, p. 190
- Kristina Dunn Johnson, No Holier Spot of Ground, p. 33
- Michael Kammen (Pulitzer Prize Winner), Mystic Chords of Memory, New York, Knopf 1991, 103.
- Tom English, "A Complicated Journey," The Southern Illinoisian, May 22, 2015.
- Gardiner and Bellware, p. 87
- Lucian Lamar Knight, "Memorial Day: Its True History". Books.google.com. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
- "Did You Know? Little known Mississippi Facts". US Genealogy Network. Retrieved May 28, 2010.
- 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.
- Karen L. Cox (2003). Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. Universbuttse Memorial Day.
- Blight (2001), Race and Reunion, pp. 272–273
- Warren Leon; Roy Rosenzweig (June 1, 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 (March 1, 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 (June 1, 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". Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- Mechant, David (April 28, 2007). "Memorial Day History". Retrieved May 28, 2010.
- E.g., 112th Congress (2011–2012), S.70
- Peggy Post; Anna Post; Lizzie Post; Daniel Post Senning (November 15, 2011). Emily Post's Etiquette, 18. HarperCollins. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-06-210127-3.
- Congress (October 22, 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 (May 1, 2004). Outdoor Escapes Washington, D.C.: A Four-Season Guide. Globe Pequot. p. 167. ISBN 978-0-7627-3056-8.
- Alan Wilson (October 1, 2011). Driven by Desire: The Desire Wilson Story. Veloce Publishing Ltd. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-84584-389-2.
- Scott, Ryan (May 24, 2015). "Memorial Day, 3 p.m.: Don't Forget". Forbes. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
- "Where did the idea to sell poppies come from?". BBC News. November 10, 2006. Retrieved February 18, 2009.
- William H. Swatos; Peter Kivisto (1998). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Rowman Altamira. pp. 49–50. ISBN 978-0-7619-8956-1.
- Marcela Cristi (2001). From Civil to Political Religion: The Intersection of Culture, Religion and Politics. Wilfrid Laurier U.P. pp. 48–53. ISBN 978-0-88920-368-6.
- William M. Epstein (2002). American Policy Making: Welfare As Ritual. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 99. ISBN 978-0-7425-1733-2.
- Corwin E. Smidt; Lyman A. Kellstedt; James L. Guth (2009). The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics. Oxford Handbooks Online. pp. 142–3. ISBN 978-0-19-532652-9.
- Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America", Daedalus 1967 96(1): 1–21.
- Cherry, Conrad (2014-02-01). God's New Israel. ISBN 978-0-8078-6658-0.
- Anania, Michael (1994). "Memorial Day". PoetryFoundation.
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. "Memorial Day". The Atlantic.
- 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
- Bellware, Daniel, and Richard Gardiner, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America (Columbus State University, 2014).
- 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.
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