In the United States our Memorial Day Holiday marks for many the beginning of the summer season. It’s a weekend for picnics, parades and fireworks. But how did this holiday begin? And what was its original purpose? To find this out we need to go back to the years following our American Civil War.
Memorial Day began officially in 1868 as Decoration Day and was borne out of the post-Civil War to remember those who had died in that war. At that time the Civil War had affected more families in this country than any other before it, because both sides were Americans.
Credit for the beginnings of Decoration Day falls to General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order N0. 11 which states, “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 lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” The date of May 30th was chosen by General Logan because it wasn’t the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle.
On the first Decoration Day over 5,000 participants heard General James Garfield, later the 20th President of the United States, speak at Arlington National Cemetery. After which they decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.
Many states and cities claimed to be the birthplace of Decoration Day. But it was the State of New York who officially recognized the holiday in 1873, and perhaps because of this in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson declared the City of Waterloo New York as its official birthplace.
By the late eighteen hundreds all of the northern states had adopted the celebration; however the southern states refused to acknowledge the day because the felt it was honoring the Union dead. They chose other days to honor their fallen Confederate soldiers. That was until after World War I when the holiday was changed from just honoring those of the Civil War to all Americans who died fighting in any war. However, still today some southern states continue to have separate dates to honor those who fought for Confederacy.
In 1915, Moina Michael was inspired by the World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields” and wrote her own poem to honor the war dead:
“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 also developed the idea to wear a red poppy on Decoration Day to further honor those who died while serving in war. She and her friends sold poppies to raise money to help servicemen in need. When a Madam Guerin was visiting our country from France she saw what Moina Michael had started and took the idea back to France. There she began creating artificial red poppies to be sold to raise funds for the war orphaned children and widows.
In 1921 the Franco-American Children’s League began selling the poppies until it disbanded a year later. Needing help Madam Guerin turned to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The VFW became the first organization to sell poppies on Memorial Day in 1922. Beginning in 1924 disabled veterans began making the “Buddy” Poppies that are now sold. The United States Post Office honored Moina Michael for her work by putting her likeness on a stamp in 1948.
The original date for Memorial Day as May 30th was changed with the passage of the National Holiday Act of 1971. Now Memorial Day is observed as the last Monday in May. This conforms to the other Federal holidays in providing a three day weekend.
In 2000 the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed by Congress which asks all Americans at 3pm on Memorial Day, “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 or listening to taps.
Today Memorial Day for many has expanded to not just honoring those who fought and died in war, but also to those who had served and are now gone.