When we think of Memorial Day, thoughts of BBQ’s, picnics, and beaches may come to mind. Let’s not forget the true origin of the holiday. It’s is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May. It honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day began as Decoration Day and was first observed after the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1971 that it became a national holiday.
The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries. Towns and cities began having springtime tributes to fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers. Although unknown where this tradition started, records show one of the earliest commemorations was organized by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. Nevertheless, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York, the official site where the tradition started.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed. The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.
For decades, Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, the date Logan had selected for the first Decoration Day. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.