Memorial Day

Each year, the people of the United States set aside the last Monday in May to remember our fallen service members.  The observance is a recent addition to the federal calendar, however.  And how America’s various communities choose to observe Memorial Day depends entirely on how devoted those community leaders are to the act of remembrance.

To many, Memorial Day is the official start of summer.  Some communities hold parades, conduct wreath-laying ceremonies, offer speeches, and have picnics.  Such celebrations are usually great fun for children — but when they put away their childish things and become adults, they realize there is something more important than grilling hamburgers and cooking hot dogs.  They may notice that their older relatives and neighbors are visiting cemeteries.  Why?  To remember those who gave all they had to give in service to their country and their respective communities.  Those fallen servicemen and women were their sons and daughters, spouses, and siblings.

Poster, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Until 1971, Americans knew this day as Decoration Day.  In all honesty, I do not recall ever celebrating Decoration Day.  I remember picnics and parades, speeches, and musical performances (local bands, of course) on the Fourth of July — but I cannot now recall a single observance of Decoration Day, not even after I joined the Marines.

Decoration Day was the brainchild of a former Civil War general by the name of John Logan.  Trained as a lawyer, Logan served as prosecuting attorney in Shiloh, Illinois, before turning toward politics in 1860.  He served his home state as a state representative, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and a U.S. Senator.  Decoration Day began as a Congressional proclamation in 1868.  Logan selected the last Monday in May, we are told because by then, America’s flowers were in full bloom.

As part of his legacy, there are ten places in the United States named in honor of General Logan from Illinois (his home state), counties in Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Dakota, a college in Carterville, Illinois, high schools in Illinois, Wisconsin, a pub in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Fort Logan Cemetery.  A street named in his honor in Michigan was later changed to become part of the longest street in America, Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard.

The American Civil War was brutal — a conflict that many Americans observed firsthand.  With 650,000 war dead, nearly everyone in the United States was in some way affected.  So, it should be no surprise to learn that in the years following the war, American communities came together to tend to the graves of those who perished in it.  These emotions prompted many Americans, if not most of them, to appreciate General Logan’s efforts.  In the photo (left), a woman can be observed tending to the grave of a loved one in Upstate New York (c. 1868) (Library of Congress Photo). 

Still, Decoration Day was not an official federal day of observance.  Logan offered a Congressional resolution calling for a day to be set aside, but it would be up to America’s communities and state governments to implement Decoration Day programs.  By 30 May 1890, all former-Union (Northern) states adopted that date as their official Decoration Day.

James Garfield offered the first Decoration Day speech on 30 May 1868.  At the time, Mr. Garfield was a congressman from Ohio and a former Union General.  He would later serve as the 20th President of the United States.  Garfield delivered his speech at the entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery, established in 1864 (the former home of Robert E. Lee).  After his speech, 5,000 visitors entered the cemetery to visit and tend the graves of fallen soldiers.

Over subsequent years, people began referring to Decoration Day as Memorial Day.  It became a day to honor all of America’s fallen soldiers, whether they served the North or South — particularly after the brutal slaughters of the First and Second World Wars.  No one spoke of Decoration Day following World War II — it was always referred to as Memorial Day.

In 1968 — amid the Vietnam War, when no one was paying attention — the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.  The Act placed all major U.S. holidays on specific Mondays to give federal employees three-day weekends.  Memorial Day was one of those ‘specially selected’ holidays, along with Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, and Columbus Day.  The Act also made Memorial Day the official name of that holiday.  The law went into effect in 1971; by then, there were no more Civil War veterans — but millions of veterans from subsequent wars.

1971 was when America began going to the mall to celebrate lower prices on furniture instead of going to the cemetery to tidy up grave markers. The proper observance of Memorial Day is that all Americans pause for a moment of silence at 3:00 p.m. local time to honor the 1.3 million men and women of the Armed Forces who gave up their lives for their country.  Few people today bother — which might help explain what’s wrong with America these days.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Military, Civil War, History, Memorial Day. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Memorial Day

  1. My Tennessee grandmother (1898-1981) always called this day “Decoration Day” — as did her sister and sisters-in-law. Until the day that they were no longer physically able to go to the cemeteries where family members were buried, they went every single year.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mustang says:

      From numerous sources, we know about Confederate Memorial Day, celebrated in certain southern states from 1866 forward to today. It is a state holiday in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina; commemorated in Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Tennessee. At one time, it was also recognized in Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia. Some (but not all) states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on or about 26 April, which coincides with the date upon which the last major Confederate field army surrendered to Union forces at Bennett Place, North Carolina, in 1865.

      Some will argue that this idea of a Memorial Day — in recognition of fallen soldiers, originated with the ladies of Columbus and Macon, Georgia in 1866 and that General Logan, having gotten wind of it, initiated Decoration Day. Until then, the southern states simply called it “Memorial Day,” and only after Logan’s efforts did they begin to call it Confederate Memorial Day.

      This example of pettiness went on from around 1866 to 1971 — proving (at least to me) that the Civil War “continued” for at least another 105 years.

      Like

  2. Layla Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

    This is a sad day for my family but also one that gives hope. What a America once stood for and what we hope it will remain to stand for – freedom.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      IMO, our nation should assume a somber tone when the President takes us to war, at least as much as we do in the aftermath of losing one. Thank you for your comment, Llayla.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Layla Elizabeth Kanas-Gonzalez says:

      Yiu are always welcome Mustang and I totally agree with your mindset. Memorial Dat has been trivialized over the years with picnics and celebrations. The latter can be reserved for the 4th of July. Today should be a time of reflection and to take stock where we are today and where we should be going from here for our nation and it’s citizenry’s best interest. Sadly we will. Ot see that from this administration. Patriotism is insurrection to those morons!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Indeed, Layla. By punishing Patriots and calling them scoundrels, they diminish patriotism and make people with patriotic feelings tremble to make them known. It is coercion plain and simple. But that’s what governments do, right? They coerce citizens into obedience … or perhaps a better word would be servitude.

      Liked by 2 people

    • We remember those that gave all so that we may carry on the fight.
      Not that we might coast on their sacrifice.
      That we would pick up the flag, man the fallen’s station and continue fighting the forces that would subject us to their tyranny.
      That is how we honor them.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. pwc1775gmailcom says:

    As usual, I learned a lot from your essays, and this one is no exception. I grew up being taught the day was called Armistice Day in respect for those who served in WW-1. And so few even think of serving anymore. I’m thinking about Ukraine and how tardy we are in sending weapons. I hope they make it. I hope the US makes it! We don’t even know who we are as a country. Thank you again for a wonderful account of the day. Pablo

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andy says:

    As always, my friend, you have done a fine job of fully explaining the history and, more importantly, the meaning behind this important day.

    Semper Fi

    Liked by 1 person

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