During the Civil War, America lost 600,000 soldiers to the woes of battle, more than all other wars combined. By the time the war was over, every community across the land knew of at least one soldier who had died on the battlefield. It was at the end of the Civil War that people began to decorate the graves of lost heroes with ribbons, flowers and decorations in tribute to the sacrifices made.
Originally called “Decoration Day”, May 30 was eventually set aside as a day for honoring and celebrating fallen Civil War soldiers after many local towns held their own decorating services.
A Day of Decorations
These actions of memorializing soldiers became so widespread that a little town in New York, Waterloo, made the decision to close its businesses one day each year in order for loved ones to participate in decorating ceremonies for their Civil War soldiers. The first day this took place in Waterloo was May 5, 1868, and so the town was deemed the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Today, we recognize soldiers who were killed serving in our Armed Forces in all American-fought wars since the Revolutionary War each year on Memorial Day. However, it wasn’t always celebrated on the last Monday of each May, and originally it was a day to decorate graves of fallen soldiers.
National Decoration Day
On May 30 of 1868, Decoration Day was made a national holiday after General John Logan wanted to combine all of the local decorating services into one large national holiday. On this first official National Decoration Day, over 5,000 citizens gathered at Arlington National Cemetery and decorated more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers’ graves to honor them.
In the years following, Decoration Day ceremonies were held each May, with special events such as concerts, poetry readings, parades and more taking place at Civil War historical locations across the country. As festivities expanded to include many activities in addition to decorating graves, the official name of Decoration Day became “Memorial Day”.
More than One War
The United States lost over 130,000 soldiers to the battles of World War I, and as the War came to a close, Memorial Day was officially proclaimed to be a day to recognize all American soldiers who had lost their lives in battle – not just those who died during the Civil War, but every war as far back as the Revolutionary War.
Celebrating the Holiday Today
Memorial Day became a Federal holiday in 1971, and the day was moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May so that federal workers could enjoy a three-day weekend, allowing more time for travel and tribute. The very reason that we today are able to celebrate a three-day weekend is because of the bravery and sacrifice of American soldiers, from all wars big and small.
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