The Story – May 26, 2019: What Is Memorial Day

From the desk of Don Merrill:

In the United States, we will be celebrating Memorial Day tomorrow, May 27, 2019 (the last Monday in May).  The origins of Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was originally known), are unclear.  The earliest references to Decoration Day appeared shortly after the end of the Civil War as various communities selected a day in early spring to honor their fallen heros by decorating their graves with flowers and flags.

Did you know that more than 600,000 people died in the Civil War?  That was by far the deadliest war in U.S. history.  By contrast, in WWI the U.S. suffered 126,000 military deaths, in WWII the U.S. suffered 407,000 losses, in the Korean War we suffered 33,686 battle deaths, in the Viet Nam war we had 57,000 military deaths, the Iraq war caused 4,497 military fallen, and in Afghanistan we have had 2,216 deaths so far.  These numbers are approximate and do vary (widely) by source.

In early May 1868, General John A. Logan called for a national day of rememberance 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 30th of May was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular battle.  The main festivities that year happened at Arlington National Cemetary where 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.

By 1890 each of the northern states had made May 30th an official state holiday.  Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor their dead on separate days until after World War I.

Decoration Day continued to be observed on May 30th for decades.   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.

Here is a short, beautiful video that answers the question: “What Is Memorial Day?”

Memorial Day occurs at one of the best and most beautiful times of the year: The end of spring and the beginning of summer. Of course you should enjoy the time off outdoors with friends and family! But be sure to take a moment to remember those who fought for our freedom.

The National Moment of Remembrance, established by Congress, asks Americans, wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day, to pause in an act of national unity for a duration of one minute. The time 3 p.m. was chosen because it is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.

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