Memorial Day is a United States
federal holiday that is observed on the last Monday of May (observed in 2008 on
May 26). It was formerly known as Decoration Day. This holiday
commemorates U.S. men and women who have died in military service to their
country. It began first to honor Union soldiers who died during the American
Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include those who died in any
war or military action. One of the longest standing traditions is the running of
the Indianapolis 500, which has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since
1911. It is also traditionally viewed as the beginning of summer by many, for
many schools are dismissed around Memorial Day.
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Many people observe this holiday
by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes
place at 3 p.m. Washington time. Another tradition is to fly the U.S. flag at
half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers place a U.S. flag upon
each gravesite located in a National Cemetery.
Many politicians and community
leaders give speeches at community gatherings on Memorial Day.
In addition to remembrance,
Memorial Day is also a time for picnics, family gatherings, and sporting events.
Some Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor
Day as the unofficial end of the season. The national Click it or ticket
campaign ramps up beginning Memorial Day weekend, noting the beginning of the
most dangerous season for auto accidents and other safety related incidents. The
USAF "101 Critical days of summer" also begin on this day as well. Some
Americans use Memorial Day to also honor any family members who have died, not
Flags flying at Fort Logan National
Cemetery during Memorial Day 2006.
Memorial Day formerly occurred on
May 30, and some, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union
Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), advocate returning to this fixed 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." Hawaii's Senator
Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, has repeatedly introduced measures to
return Memorial Day to its traditional day since 1998.
Following the end of the Civil
War, many communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a
memorial to those who had died. Some of the cities creating an early memorial
day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Richmond,
Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in
Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually
coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several
Confederate Memorial Days.
Decoration Day, c. 1900. "You bet I'm
goin' to be a soldier, too, like my Uncle David, when I grow up."
According to Professor David
Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was
observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston.
The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union
soldiers who had died while captive. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and
Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.
The official birthplace of
Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was credited with being the
birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter,
and because it is likely that the friendship of General John Murray, a
distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who led the call
for the day to be observed each year and helped spread the event nationwide, was
a key factor in its growth.
General Logan had been impressed
by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union
needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the
ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their
heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an
order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in the land,
and if he could he would have made it a holiday.
Logan had been the principal
speaker in a citywide memorial observation on April 29, 1866, at a cemetery in
Carbondale, Illinois, an event that likely gave him the idea to make it a
national holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the
Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization, Logan issued a
proclamation that "Decoration Day" be observed nationwide. It was observed for
the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was
not the anniversary of a battle. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were
decorated in remembrance of this day.
Many of the states of the U.S.
South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards
the Union Army and also because there were very few veterans of the Union Army
who lived in the South. A notable exception was Columbus, Mississippi, which on
April 25, 1866 at its Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate
casualties buried in its cemetery.
Troops at the Washington, D.C.
Memorial Day parade, 1942
The alternative name of
"Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until
after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until
1967 . On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays
Bill, which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified
Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend and for the first time
recognized Columbus Day as a federal holiday. The holidays included Washington's
Birthday (which evolved into Presidents' Day), Veterans Day, and Memorial Day.
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 at the state level, all fifty
states adopted the measure within a few years, although Veterans Day was
eventually changed back to its traditional date. Ironically, most corporate
businesses no longer close on Columbus Day or Veterans Day, and an increasing
number are staying open on President's Day as well. The holiday has endured as
one where most businesses stay closed because it marks the beginning of the
"summer vacation season" (similar to neighboring Canada's Victoria Day, which
occurs on the prior Monday)
observances in other countries
Given its origins in the American
Civil War, Memorial Day is not a holiday outside the United States. Countries of
the British Commonwealth, as well as France and Belgium, honor members of the
military who died in war on Remembrance Day, on or around November 11, the date
on which World War I came to an end in 1918. The U.S. observes that date as
Veterans Day (originally Armistice Day), which honors all veterans, living and
dead. In Ireland, the National Day of Commemoration commemorates all Irish men
and women who died in past wars or in service with the United Nations. In
Israel, Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) is observed one day prior to Independence
Day. South Korea observes 현충일 Hyeonchung-il ('Memorial day') on June 6, which
honors both military dead and fallen police officers. In Australia and New
Zealand, 25 April is observed as ANZAC day, a remembrance of the people who died
at Gallipoli during World War I.
literature and music
The southeastern U.S. celebrates
Decoration Day as a day to decorate the graves of all family members, and it is
not reserved for those who served in the military. The region observes
Decoration Day the Sunday before Memorial Day. Jason Isbell of the rock band
Drive-By Truckers chronicled such an event in his epic ballad "Decoration Day,"
which is also the title cut to the eponymous album.
Charles Ives's symphonic poem
"Decoration Day" depicts 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
New England Holidays Symphony.