Memorial Day is a day often reserved for enjoying the beginnings of summer. We barbecue, spend time outdoors, hang out with friends and catch up with family, but the real reason for the holiday is much more important. Memorial Day is the day dedicated to honoring all of those who have sacrificed their lives in service of this great nation. As we commemorate them this Memorial Day weekend, let's not forget the history behind our celebrations. Here are 7 things to remember on Memorial Day.
Before the 1880s, mentioning Memorial Day would've probably gotten you a confused look. That's because the holiday was originally known as Decoration Day. It was a day when family and friends would honor those who died serving the country by decorating their graves with flowers (poppies are still the flora of choice). It would take almost a century for the celebration to officially be renamed by the government.
Though we've been honoring our fallen soliders since the 1800s, Memorial Day didn't become a federal holiday until 1971. When the day was first observed as Decoration Day, it was only used to recognize those killed in the Civil War, not in any other American conflict. World War I prompted the country to expand the meaning of the holiday, recognizing members of the military killed in any war. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday.
Believe it or not, one person can claim credit for coming up with the idea of a Memorial Day. In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, decreed that May 30 should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. He reportedly chose May 30th because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle. It also helps that by May 30th, flowers are sure to be in full bloom.
As the Civil War neared its end, Union soldiers being held as prisoners by the Confederates were taken to camps in Charleston, South Carolina. One such camp happened to be a former race track in the city and the conditions there were so bad that more than 250 prisoners died from disease and exposure. A few weeks after the Confederates surrendered to the North, 1,000 recently freed slaves along with members of the U.S. Colored Troops and some of the city's civilians, gathered to properly bury the soldiers, sing hymns, give readings and honor the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
A handful of towns claim to be the official birthplace of Memorial Day. If you were to travel to Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, you'd hear that a group of women were the first celebrants of the holiday in 1864 when they gathered to mourn those recently fallen at Gettysburg. Carbondale, Illinois claims the holiday thanks to a parade held in 1866 and led by founder John Logan. But only one town holds the official seal of approval from the government: Waterloo, New York. President Lyndon Johnson recognized the tiny village as the birthplace of the holiday after more than 100 years of community-wide celebrations were held there.
Not that we need any other reason to honor those who've sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom, but Congress has given us one anyway. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill created the National Moment of Remembrance to be observed every Memorial Day at 3 p.m. local time. It's one minute we should all take to pay tribute to those who have given so much to protect and defend our nation.
In case you have a flag pole in your front yard, it's a good thing to remember that because this holiday honors fallen soldiers, your flag should be flying at half-staff until noon.
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