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Decoration Day to Memorial Day; Lest We Forget

By Michelle Hazekamp

May 24, 2023

What Does Memorial Day Really Mean?

As we approach Memorial Day weekend with the eagerness of an extra day off, let us remember why this day is so important. Many do not consider the significance of Memorial Day and rather regard it as a reprieve to consume one's time with unlimited garage sales, barbecues, parties and parades to entertain the kids. To many, the true meaning of Memorial Day has been lost to a generation that does not perceive the sacrifice of those who gave their lives so we could live free. Instead, it is simply an extra day off from work and school.

Whom We Owe Our Lives To

We must not forget that the significance of Memorial Day is to remember & honor all soldiers who died fighting to obtain and defend our God given Liberties & freedoms. If it were not for these brave men of past wars, whom we owe our lives to, we would not be the great nation we are today. The following is a brief history of Memorial Day and reminder of the sacrifices made in order to obtain this special "day off."

"Decoration Day?"

Memorial Day began after the Civil War as tributes to the fallen soldiers, and was originally called "Decoration Day." Americans in various towns and cities began holding springtime ceremonies in which they would decorate the graves of the fallen soldiers, sing hymns and recite prayers. It is unclear where the tradition originated, but some of the earliest records show it may have started by a group of former slaves in Charleston, SC less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.

Tradition Carried Out Everywhere

One of the first Decoration Days was held in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866 by women who decorated graves of Confederate soldiers who perished in the battle at Shiloh with flowers. This tradition was also carried out by an organization of Union Soldiers called the "Grand Army of the Republic," who would place flowers on the graves.

What is the Real Birthplace of Memorial Day?

There are 25 places in the U.S. that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, however, in 1966, the Federal Government declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace because they were the first to hold a city-wide celebration on May 5, 1866, in which businesses closed for the day to decorate graves with flowers and flags.

Flowers in Full Bloom

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance 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.

General Logan chose this time of year to celebrate Decoration Day because he believed the day should occur when flowers are in full bloom across the country.

The First Official Decoration Day

On this first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.

"Hither our children's children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union.
Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them."
-General James Garfield

Decoration Day Gains Notoriety

The following year, newly elected President, Ulysses S. Grant gave a speech for the Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to an even larger crowd of an estimated 25 - 30 thousand Union veterans, widows and orphans. The orphaned children of soldiers and sailors killed during the war placed flowers and small American flags atop both Union and Confederate graves throughout the entire cemetery.

Not "Official" Nationally

In 1888, Congress passed an Act to officially proclaim Decoration Day as May 30th in the District of Columbia.

But Decoration Day was not an official holiday. May 30 was a day touted by the Grand Army of the Republic as an official day of remembrance for people across the country.

Evolving From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

The name, "Decoration Day" did not begin to evolve into "Memorial Day" until WWI, as overseas soldiers in France began holding Memorial Day ceremonies for the fallen soldiers in temporary cemeteries, which would ultimately become the permanent resting places of U.S. Soldiers killed in combat. These observances rose up again during WWII. And now, every year during Memorial Day weekend, ceremonies in overseas cemeteries honor the more than 200,000 individuals commemorated at these sites. Each headstone is decorated with a small American flag, and the flag of the corresponding host nation. Speakers and honor guards pay homage to those who fell.

From the 30th to The Last Monday in May

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing Memorial Day on the last Monday in May and was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Memorial Day ceremonies throughout the U.S. and the world are rooted in nearly 150 years of tradition, and ensure that the United States will never forget those who died in the armed forces, far from family, home, and the country for which they served.




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