The Origin of Memorial Day

Since May 5, 1868, Americans have observed Memorial Day celebrations.  It was first observed through a general order, decreed by General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  Memorial Day was first observed for the war dead several weeks later, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890 it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war). It is now celebrated in almost every State on the last Monday in May (passed by Congress with the National Holiday Act of 1971.

Since the late 50’s on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery as an annual Good Turn, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before the observed day for Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye’s Heights (the Luminaria Program).

Some believe that the significance of Memorial Day has been lost over the decades, becoming only an opportunity to take advantage of a three day holiday and enjoying the threshold of the summer season.  There are fewer and fewer parades in cities and towns throughout the nation, and quite a few citizens now believe the holiday honors all deceased loved ones, not for those who gave their lives in the military service of the country, as it was first intended.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed on Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of Remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence.

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