The History of Memorial Day

Illustration of Union veterans and local children decorating their fathers’ graves in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Decoration Day, 1876 (Library of Congress)

Every year in the United States, Memorial Day calls for the public to remember and honor those who have fallen in the service of the Armed Forces. It is celebrated on the last Monday in May, and is regarded by some as the unofficial beginning of the summer season. While Memorial Day itself is well-known among the general public, the history that went into the creation of the Federal holiday has often been overlooked. This blogpost will examine the unique and long-term history of how Memorial Day came to be recognized nationwide.

Portrait of Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, 3rd Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (Library of Congress)

In the generations long before Memorial Day, there were multiple holidays that commemorated fallen American service members. These often varied depending on the war itself, or even the state in which the holiday was celebrated. From the American Revolution of 1775 to 1783, to the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, different eras of warfare called for different days of remembrance. One year after the American Civil War ended in 1865, several groups of Union Army, Navy, and Marine veterans congregated to form the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). The GAR was a fraternal organization that began as a social group for Union veterans, but soon shifted into political advocacy in the postbellum United States.

Portrait of unidentified African-American Union veteran from G.A.R. Post 151 (Library of Congress)

Among its many tenets, the GAR promoted patriotic education in schools, establishing a pension for veterans, advocating for Republican political candidates, and extending the right to vote to African-American veterans. Since many African-Americans had fought for the Union in the Civil War, including those who had directly escaped slavery, the GAR believed that if someone risked their life in fighting for the country, then they have earned the right to vote in the same country’s elections. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the GAR boasted a membership well into the hundreds of thousands. As more Union veterans died of old age, the GAR grew less powerful by the time of the World Wars in the early 20th century. With the death of Albert Woolson in 1956, the last Union veteran of the Civil War, the GAR was formally dissolved. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) now serves as its official successor organization.

Soldier from 3rd Infantry Regiment placing flags on headstones in Arlington National Cemetery in preparation for Memorial Day (U.S. Army)

One of the long-reaching positions of the GAR was their proposal to create a day dedicated to remembering the Union soldiers, sailors, and Marines who died in the Civil War. In 1868, the then-commander of the GAR – General John A. Logan – established May 30 as “Memorial Day,” better known back then as “Decoration Day.” This holiday had civilians visit the graves of Union soldiers across the country, to which they decorated them with flowers, American flags, candles, and other materials. While Decoration Day was becoming more celebrated across the country, the United States government formed the National Cemetery System with the purpose of interning the disparate remains of fallen Union service members into dedicated cemeteries. These cemeteries eventually grew to accommodate fallen Americans from all wars, including the more recent Spanish-American War and the two World Wars. After the Second World War ended in 1945, the name “Decoration Day” had since been replaced by “Memorial Day” in common dialect. On June 28, 1968, U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. In addition to formally establishing Columbus Day, the Act moved three Federal holidays – Washington’s Birthday, Labor Day, and Memorial Day – to Mondays throughout the calendar year. When the law officially took effect in 1971, Memorial Day was declared as a holiday where the public was, and still is, called to remember the fallen in all American wars throughout the country’s history.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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