10 Surprising Facts About Memorial Day

6 minute read

Memorial Day began as a way to honor soldiers who died in the American Civil War, which claimed the lives of the most U.S. military personnel in history. Now, the holiday is celebrated to memorialize fallen U.S. troops of all conflicts.

To some Americans, this holiday also marks a three-day weekend, the beginning of summer, and various traditions. Here are some interesting and surprising facts about Memorial Day.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the beginnings of Memorial Day lay in a celebration called Decoration Day, as community members, including those in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Union Veterans organization, visited the graves of the fallen Union soldiers in their hometown and decorated them with flowers.

“That's why it was at the end of May, because that’s when the springtime blooms, especially in Charleston, one of the cities that claims to have the first celebration, just weeks after General Lee surrendered and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated,” Dr. Joey Fink, Interim Chair and Assistant Professor of History at High Point University, tells TIME in a phone call. 

Memorial Day is said to have began as a Southern holiday, celebrating African American Freedom

In May 1865, thousands of formerly enslaved Black community members in Charleston held a ceremony and parade at the site of a former racetrack, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, where a reported 260 Union soldiers were buried in a mass grave. They reburied the soldiers in individual graves, decorated the resting places, sang songs of freedom, and held a picnic afterwards.

“The war was over, and Decoration Day had been founded by African Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration,” said Dr. David Blight, Sterling Professor of History and of African American Studies at Yale University, in his article “The First Decoration Day,” about the Charleston celebration. “The war, they had boldly announced, had been all about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders' republic, and not about state rights, defense of home, nor merely soldiers' valor and sacrifice.” 

Read More: The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day

The holiday was not official until 1968

Though many towns had their own Decoration Day celebrations, the holiday more officially emerged in 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the GAR called on former soldiers and their communities to conduct ceremonies and decorate graves of their dead comrades. This is why many consider Logan to be the founder of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1968, with the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act by Congress in June 1968, which went into effect in 1971.

It wasn't always celebrated on the last Monday in May

General Logan called for Decoration Day to occur on May 30, since it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. With the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, Memorial Day was established a federal holiday on the last Monday of May, so it could be a three-day weekend. 

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act, he noted that the three-day weekend would make it easier for Americans to travel, and better for industrial production and commercial activity, since there would be no midweek shut down.

“In the post-war years, the narrative is that it’s American to honor our traditions, our ideals and our people with commercial and industrial production and activity,” says Dr. Fink.

There is debate on where the “home” of Memorial Day is

President Johnson named Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966. Waterloo first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866. However, several other towns have also claimed to be the holiday's birthplace, including Charleson, South Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; and Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.

“Charleston claims that. Columbus claims it,” Dr. Adam Domby, Associate Professor of History at Auburn University, tells TIME in a phone call. “But the sentiment remains that the act of decoration annually begins really in the South at grave sites of American soldiers who had died fighting for African American freedom.”

American Memorial Day is quite different to the memorial days of other Anglo-European countries

According to Dr. Fink, it is far more common around the world for countries, particularly Anglo-European countries, to have their version of a Memorial Day or Remembrance Day on November 11, the conclusion of World War I, also known as Armistice Day.

In America, though, Armistice Day coincides with Veterans Day, which honors all of those who have served in the United States Military, while Memorial Day focuses on soldiers who have died.

Furthermore, Memorial Day in America is often seen as a celebration—many early iterations of the day included songs, barbecues, and lemonade, according to Dr. Domby—while Armistice Day in many other countries is publicly viewed as quite solemn.

Schoolchildren Gathering Flowers for Memorial Day
Schoolchildren gather masses of daisies for Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day. Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress—Getty Images

Confederate Memorial Day rose concurrently with Memorial Day

After the Civil War, many white Southerners refused to participate in Memorial Day, according to Domby. Instead, Confederate Memorial Day, commemorating the deaths of Confederate soldiers in the U.S., began around the same time. These celebrations never became an official federal holiday, but were eventually established as state holidays in some southern states.

Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina still recognize Confederate Memorial Day, closing state offices on April 22 and May 10, respectively. Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia still name the holiday in state law, but no longer close state offices in observance.

How a President celebrates Memorial Day is often viewed through a political lens

There is a newer narrative that Americans are losing intimacy and care for their troops. And while Dr. Fink says this is partially true with volunteer military service, Presidents have been scrutinized for how they celebrate Memorial Day.

“In 1888, the U.S. President [Grover Cleveland] was criticized for going fishing on Memorial Day, and in 1911 the first Indy 500 was held on Memorial Day,” Dr. Fink says. 

In June 1972, TIME commented that the holiday had become “a three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.”

A customary moment of silence takes place at 3:00 p.m.

Memorial Day is frequently commemorated with the gesture of American flags lowered to half-mast, accompanied by a moment of silence observed at 3:00 p.m., a time designated by The National Moment of Remembrance Act, passed in 2000.

This year, President Joe Biden also called for an “hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of [Memorial Day] as a time when people might unite in prayer and reflection.”

43.8 million people are expected to travel this Memorial Day Weekend.

AAA projected that Memorial Day 2024 will be an extremely busy travel weekend. According to their analysis, 43.8 million travelers will head 50 miles or more from home over the Memorial Day holiday travel period, a 4% increase over last year. 

“We’re projecting an additional one million travelers this holiday weekend compared to 2019, which not only means we’re exceeding pre-pandemic levels but also signals a very busy summer travel season ahead,” said Paula Twidale, Senior Vice President of AAA Travel on their website.

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