Memorial Day marks the traditional start of summer in America with kids getting out of school, the Indy 500, fireworks and BBQ. But its purpose is much deeper – serving to honor the fallen service men and women from all our wars – and its origin dates all the way back to just after the Civil War.
According to the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, the tradition that later became Memorial Day was begun in 1868 by the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, General John Logan, three years after the U.S. Civil War ended leaving 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers dead.
Logan issued General Order No. 11 declaring: “The 30th of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing 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 called it “Decoration Day.”
That first Decoration Day some 5,000 people tended to 20,000 graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers buried in Arlington National Cemetery, decorating the graves with flowers and small American Flags starting a tradition that is still followed today. The crowd attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery was approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance.
The ceremonies centered around the mourning-draped veranda of the Arlington mansion, once the home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant, presided over the ceremonies.
Following World War I, the day was expanded to honor not just Civil War dead, but any American who had fallen in battle and it remains so today. It became an official Federal holiday when Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971.
To ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance.
The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States of Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.