Monday, May 25, 2009

History of Memorial Day

Memorial Day is many things to many people: an extra day off from work or school, the perfect opportunity for a three-day weekend, a chance to bring out the old grill, or the unofficial beginning of summer. But few realize it is all of that and so much more, nor do they realize the history behind it.

Originally called "Decoration Day," Memorial Day was created to remember and honor the men and women who died during the Civil War. The first "official" Memorial Day was observed on May 30, 1868, after being proclaimed by General General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. On this day, flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Five years later, in 1873, New York would become the first state to recognize the day as a holiday and by 1890, all of the Northern states did the same. The Southern states were not as quick to catch on and honored their fallen soldiers on various other days throughout the year. It wasn't until after World War I that Memorial Day became a day to honor all fallen servicemen, not just those who died in the Civil War. The South would soon acknowledge the date and today, all 50 states observe the holiday.

No one knows exactly where the idea of Memorial Day originated but dozens of towns and cities take credit for its creation. While much evidence ironically points to women's groups in the South, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of the day in 1966. More than likely, after a hard-fought battle, many Americans had the desire to honor the dead after the Civil War and no one town is single-handedly responsible.

Today, Memorial Day has lost much of its meaning. Towns no longer hold parades, the day's unique flag etiquette goes unnoticed, and the graves of those who died serving our country go unvisited. Of course, that is not the case for all American citizens. Every year, 1,200 soldiers from the 3d U.S. Infantry place small flags at each of the 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery and patrol the cemetery to make sure the flags remain standing. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts all over the country place flags and candles at the graves of fallen soldiers in their local cemeteries. In 2004, Washington D.C. held the first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years. In December 2000, a resolution was passed that asked all Americans to stop at 3:00 PM on the day and observe a moment of silence.

Members of Congress have made many attempts, in recent years, to return the country to its roots and encourage people to celebrate Memorial Day the way it was intended: as a day to honor those who died protecting our lives and our freedom. No one knows for sure how Americans can be encourage to remember the true meaning of the day, but it is very important to be sure that those who died are kept alive in our memories forever.

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