The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend in 2008.
|Official name||Memorial Day|
|Observed by||United States|
|Observances||Remembrance of American soldiers who have died in military service|
|Date||Last Monday in May|
|2017 date||May 29|
|2018 date||May 28|
|2019 date||May 27|
|2020 date||May 25|
Memorial Day or Decoration 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 currently observed every year on the last Monday of May, was held on May 28, 2018. The holiday was held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970. It marks the unofficial 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.
Two other days celebrate those who serve or have served in the U.S. military: Veterans Day, which celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans; and Armed Forces Day, a minor U.S. remembrance celebrated earlier in May, specifically honoring those currently serving in the U.S. military.
The emergence and evolution of the Memorial Day holiday in the United States has been a highly controversial subject. The University of Mississippi's Center for Civil War Research and Columbus State University's Center for Memorial Day Research serve as excellent starting points for investigating the topic.
Some believe that an annual cemetery decoration practice began before the American Civil War and thus may reflect the real origin of the "memorial day" idea. Annual Decoration Days for particular cemeteries are still 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, 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.
On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906. In 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia decorated Confederate soldiers' graves according to the Savannah Republican. The 1863 cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Some have therefore claimed that Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day. On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers' graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, yet the principal grave they claim to have decorated was of a man who was not dead yet. Nonetheless, Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
In April 1865, following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, commemorations were widespread. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War 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.
On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently freed African-Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers, whose remains they had reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. Historian David W. Blight cites contemporary news reports of this incident in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Although Blight claimed that "African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina", in 2012, Blight stated that he "has no evidence" that the event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country. Accordingly, investigators for Time Magazine, LiveScience, RealClearLife and Snopes have called this conclusion into question.
In 1868, copying the southern annual observance of the previous three years, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, various Union and Confederate memorial traditions, celebrated on different days, merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service.
On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an "official" birthplace of the holiday by signing 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. The village credits druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray as the founders of the holiday. Scholars have determined that the Waterloo account is a myth. Snopes and Live Science also discredit the Waterloo account.
In the North
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans. With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier.
The first northern Memorial Day was observed on May 30, 1868. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. According to a White House address in 2010, the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.
The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869. In 1871, Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. There was no standard program for the ceremonies, but they were typically 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 Civil War and, at first, to rehash the "atrocities" of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism 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.
Since 1868 Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has held annual Memorial Day parades which it claims to be the nation's oldest continuously running. However, the Memorial Day parade in Rochester, Wisconsin, predates Doylestown's by one year.
By the 1880s, ceremonies were becoming quite similar as the GAR provided handbooks that presented specific procedures, poems, and Bible verses for local post commanders to utilize in planning the local event. Historian Stuart McConnell reports:
on the day itself, the post assembled and marched to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen, an enterprise meticulously organized months in advance to assure that none were missed. Finally came a simple and subdued graveyard service involving prayers, short patriotic speeches, and music...and at the end perhaps a rifle salute.
In the South
The U.S. National Park Service and numerous scholars attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to the ladies of Columbus, Georgia. On April 25, 1866, women in Columbus, Mississippi laid flowers on the graves of both the Union and Confederate dead in the city's Friendship Cemetery, claiming to be the first "Decoration Day." The early southern Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries.
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."
In 1868, some southerners appended the label "Confederate" to what they originally called "Memorial Day" after northerners co-opted the holiday. The tradition of observances were linked to the South, they served as the prototype for the national day of memory embraced by the nation in 1868.
By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the Confederate south. 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, David Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Confederate.
Starting in 1868, the ceremonies and Memorial Day address at Gettysburg National Park became nationally known. 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.
Indiana from the 1860s to the 1920s saw numerous debates on how to expand the celebration. It was a favorite lobbying activity of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). An 1884 GAR handbook explained that Memorial Day was "the day of all days in the G.A.R. Calendar" in terms of mobilizing public support for pensions. It advised family members to "exercise great care" in keeping the veterans sober.. As the years went by, the GAR complained more and more about the younger generation. In 1913, one Hoosier veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a "tendency ... to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears." Indeed, in 1911 the scheduling of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway car race was vehemently opposed by the increasingly elderly GAR. The state legislature in 1923 rejected the race on that special day. But the new American Legion and local officials wanted the big race to continue, so Governor Warren McCray vetoed the bill and the race went on.
In the national capital in 1913 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 gave the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; 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.
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. Originally it was held on Memorial Day itself, and since 1974 it runs on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. Since 1961 NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 has been held during Memorial Day weekend, and has also been held on the previous Sunday since 1974. Since 1976 The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend. The Final of the NCAA Division I Men's Lacrosse Championship has been held on Memorial Day since 1986.
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) advocated returning to the original date, although the significance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in 2002:
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.
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 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.
Across the United States, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard and Veteran service members participating along with military vehicles from various wars.
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
- Memorial Day (2012) is a war film starring James Cromwell, Jonathan Bennett, and John Cromwell.
- Logan Lucky (2017) starring Channing Tatum
- 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:
- Francis M. Finch's "The Blue and the Gray" (1867)
- Michael Anania's "Memorial Day" (1994)
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Decoration Day" (1882)
- Joyce Kilmer's "Memorial Day"
Observance dates (1971–present)
- A Great Jubilee Day, first held the last Monday in May 1783 (American Revolutionary War)
- ANZAC Day, an analogous observance in Australia and New Zealand on April 25 every year
- Armistice Day
- Confederate Memorial Day
- Remembrance of the Dead ("Dodenherdenking"), every year on May 4, 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
- Memorial Day massacre of 1937
- Nora Fontaine Davidson, credited with the first Memorial Day ceremony in Petersburg, Virginia
- Patriot Day
- 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
- 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
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Professor Blight closes his lecture with a description of the first Memorial Day, celebrated by African Americans in Charleston, SC 1865.
- David Blight, cited by Campbell Robertson, "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You're From," New York Times, May 28, 2012 – 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."
- "Lots of Places Claim to Be the Birthplace of Memorial Day. Here's the Truth, According to an Expert". Time.
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- General John Logan, quoted by his wife. Books.google.com. 1913. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- "A Complicated Journey: The Story of Logan and Memorial Day" Tom English, The Southern Illinoisian, May 22, 2015
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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.
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- Stuart McConnell, Glorious Contentment: The Grand Army of the Republic, 1865-1900 (1997) p 184.
- National Park Service, "Flowers For Jennie" Retrieved February 24, 2015
- Daniel Bellware and Richard Gardiner, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America (Columbus State University, 2014).
- 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.
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- "Birthplace of Memorial Day? That Depends Where You're From". The New York Times. May 27, 2012.
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- Sacco, 376
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- 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
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- 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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