In some ways, there are two different Americas on Memorial Day. In one, Americans go on vacation, perhaps indulge in some barbecue, shopping, or relaxing at the beach.
But for those who have ties to the U.S. military, it’s a totally different, often somber occasion, usually marked by visiting the graves of friends and family members who died serving in various armed conflicts.
That’s more in line with how the holiday was first celebrated—before it was even called Memorial Day.
Originally called Decoration Day, the occasion was first marked three years after the end of the Civil War. On May 5, 1868, John Logan, head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the major Union Army veterans association, issued a proclamation from his Washington, D.C. office telling Americans to celebrate “Decoration Day” on May 30. He urged them to decorate Civil War graves with the “choicest flowers of springtime.”
“Cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead,” Logan said in a speech at the 1868 event, “who made their breasts a barricade between our country and its foes… We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance.”
The May 30, 1868, ceremony is considered the first national Memorial Day celebration ever to be held at Arlington National Cemetery. (In recent years, scholars, including historian David Blight have pointed out that while the tradition of Memorial Day may have caught on after the 1868 Arlington National Cemetery ceremony, freed slaves first decorated soldiers’ graves even earlier, on May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C.)
The event became an annual tradition, and the name shifted as decades passed and the United States fought in more wars. Congress made May 30 a national holiday in 1889. After World War I and World War II, Memorial Day became the more common name for the occasion than Decoration Day to honor the veterans of all U.S. armed conflicts. For example, in a May 22, 1950, proclamation, President Harry Truman described Memorial Day as an occasion that “has long been set aside for paying tribute to those who lost their lives in war.” And in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill into law designating the day ‘Memorial Day’ and dating it the last Monday in May.
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