As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest
appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them.
—John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades, but Memorial Day is/should be much more than an excuse to party over a three-day weekend. Here are some facts to give this important US holiday some perspective.
Memorial Day Beginnings
- Approximately 620,000 soldiers lost their lives during the Civil War.
- In the years following the war, women placed flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers. Two years later 219 Civil War veterans marched through Carbondale, IL to Woodlawn Cemetery in memory of the fallen, where Union hero Major General John A. Logan delivered the principal address. The ceremony gave Carbondale its claim to the first organized, community-wide Memorial Day observance.
- Waterloo, New York, began holding an annual community service on May 5, 1866. Although many towns claimed the title, it was Waterloo that won congressional recognition as the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Major General John A. Logan Make Memorial Day Official
- General Logan was commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans. On May 5, 1868, he issued General Order No. 11, which set aside May 30, 1868, “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.” The orders expressed hope that the observance would be “kept up from year to year while a survivor of the war remains to honor the memory of his departed comrades.
- Originally known as Decoration Day for the practice of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags, federal law declared “Memorial Day” the official name in 1967.
- Federal Memorial Day, established in 1888, allowed Civil War veterans, many of whom were drawing a government paycheck, to honor their fallen comrades without losing a day’s pay.
- New York was the first state to designate Memorial Day a legal holiday in 1873.
- After World War I, the purpose of Memorial Day was broadened to honor those who died in all our country’s wars.
- In 1971, Memorial Day shifted from May 30 to the last Monday in May.
First Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery
- On May 30, 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery—which, until 1864, was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plantation.
- James A. Garfield, a Civil War general, Republican Congressman from Ohio, and future president delivered a speech lasting almost two hours.
- On Memorial Day weekend in 1988, 2500 motorcyclists rode into Washington, D.C. for the first Rolling Thunder rally to draw attention to Vietnam War soldiers still missing in action and prisoners of war. By 2002, the ride had swelled to 300,000 bikers, many of them veterans, and in 2018 the numbers were closer to half a million.
- Although reported that 2019 would be the group’s last Memorial Day ride, American Veterans (AMVETS) continued the tradition in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now known as Rolling to Remember, 2020’s ride participants each rode 22 miles through their own community for a Virtual Memorial Day. Traveling 22 miles is significant, because in addition to raising awareness for soldiers missing in action and prisoners of war, AMVETS wanted to bring attention to the average 22 veterans who die by suicide every day.
Customs, Firsts, Dedications
- It is customary on Memorial Day to fly the flag at half-staff until noon, and then raise it to the top of the staff until sunset.
- The World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” by John McCrea, inspired the Memorial Day custom of wearing red artificial poppies.
- In 1915, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker named Moina Michael wore a red silk poppy and began a campaign to make the poppy a symbol of tribute to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who died.”
- The first Indianapolis 500 ran on May 30, 1911. The winning driver was Ray Harroun who averaged 74.6 mph and completed the race in six hours and 42 minutes.
- The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922 by Supreme Court Chief Justice (and former president) William Howard Taft. Lincoln’s surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln attended.
- In 2000, Congress established a National Moment of Remembrance, which asks Americans to pause for one minute at 3:00 PM in an act of national unity. The time was chosen because “is the time when most Americans are enjoying their freedoms on the national holiday.”
Fath Properties remembers and honors all our fallen soldiers and their families. We wish each you a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day.