A brief history of Memorial Day in the USA

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A uniformed US soldier plants American flags at gravesites on Memorial Day

What is the meaning of Memorial Day? What does America celebrate on Memorial Day?

The United States has several days on which it recognises members of its armed forces, past and present. This is partly on account of its huge population (roughly 330 million), but also because America acknowledges its veteran community as coming from six uniformed services: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Currently, its regular and reserve components total around 0.75 per cent of the population – more than two million men and women. With an average enlistment period of around 15 years, a far larger percentage of the US population have links with serving military or veterans than most other countries.

Serving personnel are recognised on Armed Forces Day, observed on the third Saturday of May each year, while former service members are commemorated on Veterans Day, a national holiday which falls on 11 November. The most significant time, when America pauses to reflect on their fallen (also a national holiday), occurs on Memorial Day.

A veteran holding a flag
A veteran holding a flag during Memorial Day ceremonies, Virginia, 1941. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

 

What are the origins of Memorial Day? When was the first Memorial Day and what was it originally known as?

Initially, widespread recognition of American war dead occurred on Decoration Day, initiated in 1868 in the aftermath of the American Civil War (1861–65), and eventually fixed for 30 May every year, the unofficial start of the summer vacation season. The recent graves of the 600,000 who fell in battle were decorated with flags, flowers and wreaths. In turn, this had evolved from unofficial ceremonies that had sprung up in many states, during and after the Civil War, including observance in the old Southern Confederacy.

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After President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, and the subsequent creation of the US National Cemetery System for Union war dead the same year, the formal and nationwide practice of visiting and decorating graves gained popularity. This was further encouraged by guidebooks to the cemeteries, incorporating military history, published by various powerful women’s organisations dedicated to preserving the memory of their kin.

American Red Cross nurses on 1924
Commemoration was encouraged by powerful women’s organisations. Pictured, American Red Cross nurses gather at the grave of a fallen colleague on Memorial Day in 1924. (Photo by Authenticated News/Kean Collection/Getty Images)

 

 

Who founded Memorial Day? Who was president when Memorial Day first began?

Decoration Day was formally inaugurated by the Ohio Congressman (and future 20th president), James A Garfield, who had also served as a major general in the American Civil War. On 30 May 1868 he made a stirring speech at Arlington National Cemetery explaining the purpose of the day and why commemoration was important. “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke”, he intoned. “But we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

Following his speech, 5,000 participants turned out in force to help decorate the graves of the more than 20,000 soldiers buried in the cemetery.

Tradition has it that small American flags are placed on war graves by a soldier in preparation for Memorial Day.
Tradition has it that small American flags are placed on war graves by a soldier in preparation for Memorial Day. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

 

Which American city is considered the birthplace of Memorial Day?

The term Decoration Day gradually morphed into Memorial Day (a title which itself dated back to 1882), but the name change was only recognised in the 1960s. It was confirmed by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which moved the date from 20 May each year to the last Monday in May, confirming it as a national holiday and making a three-day weekend.

The original Decoration Day was in fact a fusing together of several ceremonies held on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Columbus and Jackson, Mississippi; Columbus, Macon and Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Warrenton and Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois, all lay claim to being among the earliest originators of the tradition. Some even claim that soldiers’ graves began to be decorated prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.

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However, in 1966 President Lyndon B Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Memorial Day, since the town had observed the moment continuously for 100 years as an all-inclusive community event, during which businesses closed and residents took time to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers and flags. By the late 19th century, many communities across the country had begun to celebrate Decoration/Memorial Day, a sober moment later given added impetus by America’s sacrifices made during the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere.

D-Day landings
The marking of Memorial Day was given added impetus by America’s sacrifices made during later conflicts, including the Second World War. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Is there any opposition to Memorial Day?

Memorial Day is not without its opponents – for two reasons. Some US veterans remain concerned that the meaning of the holiday – to honour the nation’s war dead – has been suffocated by it being included in the first long weekend of the summer. They lobby for a return to the original 30 May date. A second challenge lurks in some parts of the former Confederacy such as Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, where a Confederate Memorial Day is still observed. This is on variable dates each April or May, in addition to the formal Federal national holiday.

 

What is the Memorial Day flower?

Reflecting the wider British, Canadian and Commonwealth practice, it was in 1918 that a Georgian YMCA volunteer, Moina Michael, responded to a poem which spoke of wearing a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who fought in the war. At its conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted the poppy as its memorial flower. The following year silk and paper red flowers were sold during the week before Memorial Day. Ever since, the American Legion has distributed crepe-paper poppies in exchange for donations around Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

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Memories of Decoration/Memorial Day have loomed large in American culture, especially in times of war. For example, on 30 May 1944 Sergeant Hyam Haas, a draftee from Brooklyn, found himself driving through Exmouth in southern England on his way to board a D-Day landing craft. “The townsfolk lined the streets and cheered us on – we noticed many of them in tears. It seemed as if the entire nation was in motion. This was the biggest Decoration Day parade ever; the only thing missing were the marching bands. There was constant cheering as we went through towns.” Of course, this wasn’t a Decoration Day festival; the British civilians were cheering the GIs on their way to invade France, but the date was right, and Hyam Haas and his comrades treated it as their Decoration Day.

 

What are Memorial Day traditions? What events take place and how has this changed over time?

US Memorial Day traditions around the world vary, but typically include the American flag being hung at half-staff until noon, then raised to the top of the pole. The president usually leads the nation in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Illustrating the way Memorial Day Weekend traditions have changed in recent years, in an organised event called Rolling Thunder, thousands of veterans drive into Washington DC on motorcycles. The purpose of their slow procession past the war memorials lining the National Mall is to draw attention not to individual graves, but to the ‘Left Behind’ – that is, US prisoners of war and those Missing in Action.

US President Bill Clinton lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1994
US President Bill Clinton lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in 1994 during Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo credit should read ROBERT GIROUX/AFP via Getty Images)

Nationally, all Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3pm local time. Some wear a red poppy, and most towns and cities across the United States host Memorial Day parades, where bands, veterans and serving personnel march. When I lived in America I noticed that as children grew older they were encouraged to switch their focus away from the three-day Memorial weekend of grilling burgers, heading to a pool or making lemonade. Among my friends, I was pleasantly surprised to find many families actually planned visits to cemeteries and memorials, where the sight of thousands of miniature American flags, one per grave, planted with military precision, is always intensely moving.

Peter Caddick-Adams is a writer and broadcaster who specialises in military history, defence and security issues. He previously lectured in Military and Security Studies at the UK Defence Academy for 20 years, and in Air Power for the Royal Air Force. His books include Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell (Preface Digital, 2012)

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