Today is Memorial Day, honoring the men and women who died serving in the United States Military. In cities and towns across the country, Americans will line the streets of downtowns to watch parades or visit cemeteries and memorials. An annual national moment of remembrance can be observed at 3:00 p.m. local time.
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, originating after the Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865. Waterloo, N.Y. first held a community day of tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Civil War on May 5, 1866, during which businesses were closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Other towns and cities also began holding similar springtime tributes.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Northern Civil War veterans organization, called for a nationwide day of remembrance which he called Decoration Day. The date of May 30th was chosen because it was not tied into the anniversary of any particular battle.
In his General Order No. 11, Logan declared:
“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
More soldiers were killed in the Civil War than in any other conflict in U.S. history, requiring the need for national cemeteries. On that first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to adorn the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers with flags and flowers. General James Garfield was there to address the crowd.
In the following years, many Northern states held similar commemorative events, making Decoration Day an official state holiday by 1890. However, some Southern states continued to honor their fallen soldiers on separate days.
Gradually, Decoration came to be known as Memorial Day. While originally honoring only those lost during the Civil War, the holiday evolved into a commemoration of all fallen American military personnel following World War I.
In 1915, Moina Michael, moved by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” wrote:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
She wore a red poppy on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers to collect money to benefit servicemen in need.
In 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies, and started selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans through its “Buddy” Poppy program.
Memorial Day continued to be observed on May 30, until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, establishing a federal holiday on the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The date change officially went into effect in 1971.
President Lyndon declared Waterloo the official birthplace of Memorial Day in May of 1966, although more than two dozen cities and towns claim that title.