Why do we observe Memorial Day? Here's the true history of the holiday

·4 min read

No, Memorial Day isn't about a long weekend road trip, backyard barbecue or sales. The real meaning of the national holiday is much more somber.

Originally called Decoration Day, Monday's holiday honors all soldiers who died during service to the nation.

Memorial Day was declared a national holiday through an act of Congress in 1971, and its roots date back to the Civil War era, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Unlike Veterans Day, Memorial Day honors all military members who have died in while serving in U.S. forces.

Ahead of this year’s holiday, here are some Memorial Day facts you might not know:

The Cavalry section of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is seen on the grounds of the US Capitol on February 25, 2014 in Washington D.C.
The Cavalry section of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is seen on the grounds of the US Capitol on February 25, 2014 in Washington D.C.

What is Memorial Day and why do we celebrate it?

The origins of the holiday can be traced back to local observances for soldiers with neglected gravesites during the Civil War.

The first observance of what would become Memorial Day, some historians think, took place in Charleston, S.C., at the site of a horse racing track that Confederates had turned into a prison holding Union prisoners. Blacks in the city organized a burial of deceased Union prisoners and built a fence around the site, Yale historian David Blight wrote in The New York Times in 2011.

Then on May 1, 1865, they held an event there including a parade – Blacks who fought in the Civil War participated – spiritual readings and songs, and picnicking. A commemorative marker was erected there in 2010.

A marker in Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., shown in this May 23, 2011 photo, commemorates the 1865 honoring of Union soldiers who died at a Confederate prisoner of war camp on the site. Some historians contend that the event in the city where the Civil War began marks the first Memorial Day observance in the United States.
A marker in Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., shown in this May 23, 2011 photo, commemorates the 1865 honoring of Union soldiers who died at a Confederate prisoner of war camp on the site. Some historians contend that the event in the city where the Civil War began marks the first Memorial Day observance in the United States.

One of the first Decoration Days was held in Columbus, Mississippi, on April 25, 1866 by women who decorated graves of Confederate soldiers who perished in the battle at Shiloh with flowers.

On May 5, 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, the tradition of placing flowers on veterans’ graves was continued by the establishment of Decoration Day by an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic.

General Ulysses S. Grant presided over the first large observance, a crowd of about 5,000 people, at  Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on May 30, 1873. The orphaned children of soldiers and sailors killed during the war placed flowers and small American flags atop both Union and Confederate graves throughout the entire cemetery.

In this image from the U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant stands for a portrait August, 1864 in City Point, Virginia.
In this image from the U.S. Library of Congress, U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant stands for a portrait August, 1864 in City Point, Virginia.

This tradition continues to thrive in cemeteries of all sizes across the country.

Until World War I, Civil War soldiers were solely honored on this holiday. Now, all Americans who’ve served are observed.

At least 25 places in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Some states that claim ownership of the origins include Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, according to Veterans Affairs.

Children are seen along a Memorial Day parade route May 30, 2011, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Children are seen along a Memorial Day parade route May 30, 2011, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Motorists drive down Main Street in Waterloo, N.Y., Thursday, May 24, 2007. Waterloo is the birthplace of Memorial Day. More than two dozen communities around the United States claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.  Yet the official distinction, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, is held by Waterloo.
Motorists drive down Main Street in Waterloo, N.Y., Thursday, May 24, 2007. Waterloo is the birthplace of Memorial Day. More than two dozen communities around the United States claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. Yet the official distinction, signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, is held by Waterloo.

Despite conflicting claims, the U.S. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, New York, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day on May 30, 1966, after Governor Nelson Rockefeller's declaration that same year. The New York community formally honored local veterans May 5, 1866 by closing businesses and lowering flags at half-staff.

What is the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Memorial Day and Veterans Day both honor the sacrifices made by U.S. Veterans but serve different purposes.

Veterans’ Day, originally called “Armistice Day,” is a younger holiday established in 1926 as a way to commemorate all those who had served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. Memorial Day honors all those who’ve died.

Veterans Day is observed on Nov. 11 to signify the Armistice that ended combat in World War I in 1918.

After World War II, Armistice Day's purpose broadened and changed in 1954 to recognize those who have served in all American wars.

What's open and closed on Memorial Day?: What to know about mail delivery, store hours

Why is Memorial Day in May?

The day that we celebrate Memorial Day is believed to be influenced by Illinois U.S. Representative John A. Logan, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat in November 1858, and served as an officer during the Mexican War.

It is said that Logan, a staunch defender of the Union, believed Memorial Day should occur when flowers are in full bloom across the country, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Army.

Congress passed an act making May 30 a holiday in the District of Columbia in 1888, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Now Memorial Day is observed as the last Monday of May.

In 2000 The National Moment of Remembrance Act – which created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance and encourages all to pause at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence – was signed into law by Congress and the President.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is Memorial Day and why do we celebrate it in the US?

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