LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - Memorial Day is the time of year where we remember and honor those who have died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Marked with family gatherings, parades, concerts, memorials, and visits to cemeteries, the holiday gives us time to reflect on our freedom as Americans by paying tribute to those who payed the ultimate price for it.
The origins of Memorial Day constitute traditions of observing soldier’s graves that dates back to ancient times as people decorated graves with flowers. And while graves were decorated well before the 1860s, the holiday as we know it traces back to the American Civil War.
During the Civil War, organized memorials and grave decoration ceremonies began to become commonplace with women often leading the efforts and organization of such events.
Some argue that President Abraham Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day due to the 1863 commemoration and cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Various other towns and cities held memorials during the Civil War and sometimes promote themselves as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
However, after President Lincoln’s assassination, commemorations became more widespread. With the death toll on both sides of the Civil War numbering in the hundreds of thousands, these commemorations became increasingly important in the national culture. But it wasn’t until 1865 that the federal government began creating military cemeteries for the Union soldiers who died in the war.
The United States National Park Service attributes the official beginning of Memorial Day practices to 1866 in Columbus, Georgia, where the Ladies Memorial Association passed a resolution to set aside one day annually to memorialize Confederate soldiers. Similar memorials were also held in places like Columbus, Mississippi, and were usually quiet observances where veterans and families came together to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries.
These memorials were spread across the south by various memorial associations led by women who sought to establish care for cemeteries, organize ceremonies, and sponsor Confederate monuments remembering the dead. One of the most notable was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments and lobbying legislatures and Congress for reburials as well as shaping the content of many early history books.
Soon after, on May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, who was the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a proclamation for a “Decoration Day,” to be observed annually and nationally with his General Order No. 11, under which he commanded the army to place flowers on the graves of Union soldiers. However The Grand Army of the Republic would not adopt the name Memorial Day until 1882.
The first official Northern Memorial Day was observed on May 30, 1868, when memorial events were held in cemeteries across 27 states.
Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871. By 1890, every northern state had done the same. While there were no standard programs for such ceremonies, they were usually sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps. And by 1870 the remains of almost 300,000 Union soldiers were re-interred across 73 national cemeteries which were located near major battlefields.
Some of the most famous of these are Gettysburg National Cemetery and Arlington National Cemetery.
By the 1880s, ceremonies began to have similar programs with the Grand Army of the Republic providing handbooks that presented specific procedures, poems, and Bible verses for the events.
As the holiday became more ingrained in American culture, a number of traditions and events began to spring up in the 20th Century around Memorial Day such as the Indianapolis 500, which began in 1911, NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, which began in 1961, and the PGA Memorial Tournament, which began in 1976.
The name “Memorial Day” gradually replaced “Decoration Day” in the American lexicon until World War II when it became the name most used to describe the holiday. The name “Memorial Day” did not become the official name of the holiday until 1967.
In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day and three other holidays from their traditional days to specified Mondays so that there would be a convenient three-day weekend. This moved Memorial Day from its traditional day on May 30 to the last Monday in May.
Another relatively newer addition to the holiday is the inclusion of remembrance poppies which have been used since 1921 to commemorate military personnel and were first adopted by the American Legion. The use of the poppy flower was originally inspired by the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields.”
Additionally, in 2000 Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember America’s fallen soldiers at 3 p.m. on the holiday.
Today Memorial Day is often seen by many as the unofficial beginning of summer while Labor Day marks its end.
On this day the U.S. flag is traditionally raised quickly to the top of the staff and then slowly lowered the half-staff where it remains until noon.
The National Memorial Day Concert also takes place featuring music and time for remembrance for those who gave their lives for the country. The Concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR.
Finally, cities large and small often gather for their own memorials and parades often featuring marching bands from active duty, reserve, National Guard, and veteran service members who come out to pay respect to those who have fallen.
We hope you enjoy your Memorial Day weekend and take some time Monday to stop and remember the soldiers who have fought in America’s wars, giving their lives to preserve our freedom both at home and abroad.