On the last Monday in May - Memorial Day - let’s all take a moment of silence to remember the fallen. At 3 pm local time, take a minute for the National Moment of Remembrance.
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. ... Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
General Logan, 1868
Memorial Day was not always Memorial Day. Following the Civil War, Union veterans from every branch established the Grand Army of the Republic - a veterans organization for, “defense of the late soldiery of the United States, morally, socially, and politically.” Two years after its 1866 founding, the GAR would be instrumental in spreading the newly-named Decoration Day as a day to remember the fallen soldiers of the Civil War.
Before Decoration Day became a national day of observance, different localities were already commemorating the war dead. One of the first springtime tributes occurred in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25th, 1866. A group of women were visiting the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen at the battle at Shiloh. The nearby Union graves were neglected at the time. These women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well, so they would not be so bare.
Carbondale, Illinois, was the wartime home of Major General John A. Logan, an instrumental figure in the growth of Decoration Day. A stone in the Carbondale cemetery carries the statement that the first Decoration Day ceremony took place there on April 29, 1866. In that same year, General Logan co-led a parade to remember the fallen. Just two years later, as the commander of the GAR, Logan declared Decoration Day to be a national day of observance.
“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.”
John Logan, May 15th, 1868
It is thought that Logan chose May 30th for Decoration Day because it did not fall on the anniversary of any Civil War battles. Other legends say that May 30th was appropriate because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
Alongside Carbondale (Illinois) and Columbus (Mississippi), the cities of Columbus (Georgia), Richmond (Virginia), Boalsburg (Pennsylvania), and Waterloo (New York) also claimed to be the first communities to observe Decoration Day to some degree.
The first national observance of Decoration Day was held in Arlington National Cemetery, following a declaration by Logan on May 5th, 1868. Roughly 5,000 people showed up, bringing with them a myriad of flowers and many small flags to decorate the graves of 20,000 soldiers. The tradition of placing small flags over the graves of soldiers began at this event. By 1890, every former state of the Union had adopted May 30th as an official holiday. States of the former Confederacy celebrated Decoration Day on different dates in spring, mostly falling between late April and late May.
By 1900, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30th throughout the nation. The Army and Navy had drafted regulations for proper observances at their facilities. State legislatures passed proclamations officially designating the day. By World War I, the day was expanded to honor the fallen in all American wars. The purpose and procedures of the date remained the same, but were no longer focused solely on the soldiers of the Civil War.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. On May 5th of 1866, 100 years prior, the residents of Waterloo took part in a quite formal observance of Decoration Day. The city claimed that others’ observances at the time were informal, not community-wide, or were simply one-time events.
The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 changed the name of Decoration Day to Memorial Day. The date of the national holiday was set as the last Monday in May, to give federal workers a three day weekend. This change went into effect in 1971. Almost immediately, Veterans groups became concerned that Americans would associate the day with a 3-day weekend and the start of summer, and not with honoring the nation’s fallen soldiers. (If I'm being quite honest, that does often seem to be the case)
In 2000, Congress passed legislation to create the National Moment of Remembrance. The Moment is observed at 3pm local time with one minute of silent reflection on all those who have died in service of the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: "It's a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day."
Memorial Day is not the only holiday that celebrates our veterans. Click here to find out about the history of Veterans Day.