General

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day: A brief history of Memorial Day

Although many people tend to celebrate Memorial Day as sort of a mini-Fourth of July — cookouts, cold beer, beaches, and barbecues — that’s a far cry from why the date was founded. Originally known as Decoration Day, the late-May observance was created after the Civil War to honor the approximately 620,000 lives lost.

The first Decoration Day — maybe

East Cemetery Hill is the historic location of a memorial to the Union Army Major General.
Credit: JayLazarin/ iStock

Several cities, including Waterloo, New York, and Columbus, Georgia, claim they hosted the first Decoration Day. But in the 1990s, historian David Blight discovered documentation recording what may very well have been the original commemoration. Blight was doing research for a book on the Civil War when a curator at Harvard’s library asked him if he would like to look through a couple of boxes of old material from Union veterans. Inside one of the boxes was a piece of cardboard covered in handwritten scrawl. The makeshift record told the story of a march held at the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. During the Civil War, the country club had been converted to a prison for Union soldiers; more than 260 of them died and were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

Immediately after the Confederates surrendered Charleston to Union troops, emancipated men and women moved the soldiers' bodies from the mass grave and gave them a proper burial. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of 10,000 people paraded around the racetrack, singing hymns and carrying bouquets of flowers. Though there’s little additional information about the parade, Blight believes the 1865 march for the “Martyrs of the Race Course” was the first Decoration Day event in history.

However, the creation story that’s most often cited didn’t occur until three years later: In 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared that Americans should decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers every year on May 30. The date was chosen because it was a spring day that wasn’t the anniversary of any battle.

Celebrate with solemnity

American flags waving on a field.
Credit: David Everett Strickler/ Unsplash

Almost since its inception, critics have noted that Memorial Day has morphed from a time of somber remembrance to one of summer celebration: In 1869, The New York Times warned that “joy” was overtaking solemnity. This may have been further exacerbated a century later in 1971, when Congress's Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect. It declared that certain holidays would always be on a Monday in order to ensure a three-day weekend. Along with Memorial Day, the act included Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day.

In 1978, Veterans Day, which honors all veterans, not just fallen ones, reverted to the specific date of November 11 (Armistice Day); some groups are calling for Memorial Day to do the same. Feeling that the three-day weekend designation adds to the celebratory mood of the day, the American Legion has called for a return to celebrate Memorial Day more seriously, and that includes going back to the original May 30 date.

"There's nothing wrong with [celebratory events] and enjoying the lifestyle that we have," American Legion communications director John Raughter told "National Geographic" in 2012. "But remember that the lifestyle that we have in America — the ability to enjoy a long weekend — was made possible by the nearly one million men and women who have died in service to this country since the American Revolution."

A moment of remembrance

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Washington, DC.
Credit: David Tato/ Unsplash

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, which asks all Americans to pause their festivities at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day Monday. For 60 seconds, the Uniformed Services Benefit Association says, “Trains will blow their whistles. Almost 500,000 Major League Baseball fans will pause for a moment of silence. Cars will drive with their headlights on. Americans everywhere will wave flags. ‘Taps’ will play throughout the nation.”

Even if you’re poolside or grill-side on Memorial Day, reserve a minute of your day for the intended purpose of the holiday: Say a silent (or not-so-silent) thank you to honor the men and women who sacrificed everything for our freedom.