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From Decoration Day to Memorial Day – Lesson


Raphael Tuck & Sons Decoration Day Series Postcard, circa 1909. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What started out as a day to remember Civil War soldiers turned into a time of remembrance for all who have fallen.

Memorial Day has always been a day to remember and honor soldiers who died in the line of duty. However, this holiday wasn’t always known as Memorial Day – it started out being called Decoration Day. And at that time, it was to commemorate those who had lost their lives during the Civil War.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan told members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Civil War Union veterans, that:

“The 30th Day of May, 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in the defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

At the first Decoration Day event, General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. About 5,000 people showed up to participate and help decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.

Garfield said:

“We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; 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.”

memorial day

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Over the years, the observance evolved to include soldiers lost in all wars, not just the Civil War. President Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1968, signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which made Memorial Day a federal holiday. Since 1971, it has been celebrated on the fourth Monday of May.

Many people do not understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The first is to honor and remember those who have died while serving their country; Veterans Day is to honor all who have served in the military, especially those still alive.

Memorial Day Traditions

Parades are a common tradition to celebrate and honor soldiers. You’re likely to see parade-goers wearing poppies on their shirts or hats. The poppy came about during World War I after John McCrae felt inspired to write the poem “In Flanders Fields” in 1915. Brutal battles had been going on, and one day he saw a field of poppies, one of the first flowers to appear after the chaos. In 1918, Moina Michael wrote her own poem, “We Shall Keep the Faith,” in which she mentioned honoring the dead by wearing the “poppy red,” and thus, the tradition was born.

memorial day

(Photo by Gabriele Holtermann/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Military cemeteries place American flags at gravestones of fallen soldiers. At Arlington National Cemetery, a wreath is also placed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. People visit the cemeteries to offer their respect and place flowers at the gravesites, as well as other trinkets and mementos.

Across the country, flags are flown at half-staff from sunrise until noon. When the sun has set, the flag is raised to the top of the staff. President Bill Clinton, in 2000, signed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, encouraging Americans to take time to pause at 3 pm their local time to reflect on those who gave their lives to serve our country.

Memorial Day is a time to remember the great sacrifices our military men and women have given to defend our country and its people. As President Harry S. Truman said:

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”