Memorial Day: 6 Things You May Not Know About the Holiday

Every year on the last Monday of May, Americans gather to honor the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in service to their country. What began as informal commemorations of those killed in the Civil War has grown to become one of the nation’s most hallowed holidays. From its early incarnation as “Decoration Day” to its modern-day observances, here are some other historical facts about Memorial Day.

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Three years after the end of the Civil War, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union Army veterans’ association, called for a nationwide day of remembrance to honor the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the rebellion.

nOn May 5, 1868, he issued General Orders No. 11, designating May 30 as Decoration Day "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."

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During the Civil War, women’s groups across the South gathered informally to decorate the graves of Confederate dead. In April 1866, the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Mississippi, resolved to commemorate the fallen — Confederate and Union troops alike — annually. The gesture made headlines, and historians believe that news of the joint commemoration inspired Logan to introduce Decoration Day.

Some southern states still hold Confederate observances. Mississippi celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on the last Monday of April, Alabama on the fourth Monday of April, and Georgia on April 26. The Carolinas observe it on May 10, Louisiana on June 3 and Tennessee calls that date Confederate Decoration Day. Texas celebrates Confederate Heroes Day on Jan. 19 and Virginia calls the last Monday in May Confederate Memorial Day.

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The holiday was long known as Decoration Day and solely honored Northern and Southern soldiers who died in the Civil War. It was not until after World War I, however, that the day was recognized nationally and expanded to honor all soldiers who have died wearing the American uniform.

Then in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act relocating several holidays to create longer weekends, and moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 to last Monday in May. The law went into effect in 1971.

Though cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Waterloo, New York, claims to have held the "first formal, village wide, annual observance of a day dedicated to honoring the war dead."

nIn 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson agreed, naming Waterloo the official “birthplace” of Memorial Day.

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In Logan’s Decoration Day decree, he called for Americans to lay “the choicest flowers of springtime” and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Logan may have chosen May 30 because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

One flower, in particular, has become the official symbol of the somber holiday. The poppy is also the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. The tradition of wearing red poppies on Memorial Day was inspired by the 1915 poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrea.

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In December 2000, Congress passed a law encouraging Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. National Moment of Remembrance encourages reflection and national unity "with the goal of putting the 'Memorial' back into Memorial Day," according to Carmella LaSpada, director of the Commission on Remembrance
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Moving Memorial Day in 1968 from a set day in May to a specified Monday, creating a long weekend, has had some regrettable consequences. The annual tributes to America's fallen service members have been overshadowed by weekend barbecues, getaways, sporting events and sales.

Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with the start of summer and not its intended purpose, have long lobbied for a return to the May 30 observances. Their cause was championed by Hawaiian Senator and decorated World War II veteran Daniel Inouye, who introduced a bill to Congress in 1989 that would return Memorial Day to May 30 and, until his death in 2012, reintroduced legislation in support of the change at the start of every Congressional term.

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