Arlington National Cemetery

Our journey begins in the aftermath of the American Civil War, a nation grappled with the immense loss of life. Over 620,000 soldiers perished in the conflict, leaving a profound emptiness across the land. It was from this sense of grief and a desire to honor those who fell that Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, emerged.

The day, known as Memorial Day, is a national holiday dedicated to honoring the fallen heroes of the United States Armed Forces. But the path to this designated day of respect has been a winding one, evolving alongside the nation it commemorates. In 1868, a desire to honor these sacrifices coalesced around the idea of decorating the graves of the fallen with flowers.

From Decoration Day to a National Day of Remembrance

On May 5th of 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a prominent organization of Union veterans, issued General Order No. 11, also known as the “Memorial Day Order.” This proclamation designated May 30th, a date chosen for its widespread blooming flowers, as a day for the nation to “strew with flowers or otherwise decorate the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”

The first large observance of what was then called Decoration Day took place that same year at Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the nation’s capital. The somber ceremony, held on the grounds of the once-grand Arlington House, marked the beginning of a national tradition.

The poppy became the symbol of Memorial Day, thanks to the famous poem, “In Flanders’ Fields,” by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae.  He wrote it in memory of his friend Alexis Helmer, whom he watched die in battle in World War I. 

By the late 19th century, Decoration Day observances had spread throughout the country. State legislatures passed proclamations recognizing the day, and the U.S. military adopted regulations for proper observance at its installations. However, the focus remained primarily on the immense losses of the Civil War.

World War I and Beyond

World War I, with its staggering death toll, served as a turning point. The immense sacrifice of American soldiers on foreign soil broadened the scope of Memorial Day. The day increasingly became a time to remember all those who died serving the nation, not just those lost in the Civil War.

The expansion of the holiday’s significance continued throughout the 20th century. World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and countless other conflicts added layers of remembrance to the day. Memorial Day became a way to honor not just the fallen, but also the ideals they fought to defend – liberty, democracy, and the American way of life.

The New National Holiday to Remember

In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as a national holiday observed on the last Monday of May. This move not only solidified the day’s national importance but also ensured a three-day weekend, further cementing Memorial Day’s association with the unofficial start of summer.

Today, Memorial Day observances encompass a wide range of traditions. From visiting cemeteries and placing flags on graves to attending parades and participating in community gatherings, Americans use the day to reflect on the sacrifices of those who served.

We Should Teach What Memorial Day Means to Our Children

However, Memorial Day is not simply a day for somber reflection. It is also a time to celebrate the lives and legacies of fallen heroes. Many communities host barbecues, picnics, and sporting events, creating a festive atmosphere that acknowledges the joy and spirit embodied by those who gave their all.

The evolution of Memorial Day from Decoration Day to a national day of remembrance reflects the changing landscape of American history. As the nation has faced new conflicts and emerged as a global power, the day has adapted to encompass the sacrifices of all who have served.

While the core purpose of honoring the fallen remains constant, the ways in which Americans observe Memorial Day continue to evolve, ensuring that the stories and sacrifices of our nation’s heroes are never forgotten.

More Resources for You

This brief history merely scratches the surface of this rich and evolving tradition. Please look over the links below for further information about Memorial Day and the History of America, often referred to as The Greatest Nation on Earth

America’s Hidden History: Memorial Day by David and Tim Barton on TBN.

Visit the best American History Library at Wall Builders by David and Tim Barton.

Find course material, videos and training for America Citizens at Patriot Academy. Discover the Truth about American History.

Want more information about the History of our country and Tennessee History? Leave me a comment below.

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