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Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Memorial Day (previously but now seldom called Decoration Day) is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering and honoring the military personnel who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.[1] The holiday is observed on the last Monday of May. Memorial Day was observed on May 30 from 1868 to 1970.[2]

Many people visit cemeteries and memorials on Memorial Day, particularly to honor those who died in military service. Many volunteers place an American flag on each grave in national cemeteries.

Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of summer in the United States,[3] while Labor Day marks the unofficial start of Autumn on the first Monday of September.

Two other days celebrate those who serve or have served in the U.S. military: Veterans Day, which celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans;[4] and Armed Forces Day, a minor U.S. remembrance celebrated earlier in May, specifically honoring those currently serving in the U.S. military.

Memorial Day
Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPG
The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are decorated by U.S. flags on Memorial Day weekend in 2008.
Official nameMemorial Day
Observed byAmericans
ObservancesRemembrance of American service members who have died in armed conflicts or served
DateLast Monday in May
2018 dateMay 28 (2018-05-28)
2019 dateMay 27 (2019-05-27)
2020 dateMay 25 (2020-05-25)
2021 dateMay 31 (2021-05-31)

Claimed origins

The history of Memorial Day in the United States is complex. At Columbus [Georgia] State University there is a Center for Memorial Day Research [95] , and the University of Mississippi incorporates a Center for Civil War Research that has also led research into Memorial Day's origins[5].

The practice of decorating soldiers' graves with flowers is an ancient custom.[6] Soldiers' graves were decorated in the U.S. before[7] and during the American Civil War.

Precedents in the South

According to the United States Library of Congress website, "Southern women decorated the graves of soldiers even before the Civil War’s end. Records show that by 1865, Mississippi, Virginia, and South Carolina all had precedents for Memorial Day."[8] The earliest Southern Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries.[9] In following years, the Ladies Memorial Association and other groups increasingly focused rituals on preserving Confederate Culture and the Lost Cause of the Confederacy narrative.[10]

Warrenton, Virginia

On June 3, 1861, Warrenton, Virginia, was the location of the first Civil War soldier's grave ever to be decorated, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper article in 1906.[11]

Savannah, Georgia

In 1862, women in Savannah, Georgia decorated Confederate soldiers' graves according to the Savannah Republican.[12]

Charleston, South Carolina

On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently-freed African-Americans held a parade of 10,000 people to honor 257 dead Union soldiers, whose remains they had reburied from a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp.[13] Historian David W. Blight cites contemporary news reports of this incident in the Charleston Daily Courier and the New-York Tribune. Although Blight claimed that "African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina",[14] in 2012, he stated that he "has no evidence" that the event in Charleston inspired the establishment of Memorial Day across the country.[15] Accordingly, investigators for Time Magazine, LiveScience, RealClearLife and Snopes have called this conclusion into question.[16][17][18][19]

Columbus, Georgia

The United States National Park Service[20] and numerous scholars attribute the beginning of a Memorial Day practice in the South to a group of women of Columbus, Georgia.[21][22][23][24][25][26][27]

Precedents in the North

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

The 1863 cemetery dedication at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania included a ceremony of commemoration at the graves of dead soldiers. Some have therefore claimed that President Abraham Lincoln was the founder of Memorial Day.[28]

Boalsburg, Pennslvania

On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers' graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.[29] Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.[30]

National Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan issued a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed annually and nationwide; he was commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of and for Union Civil War veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois.[31] With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier.[32][33][34][35][32][36][37]

The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869.[38]. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle.[39] According to a White House address in 2010, the date was chosen as the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in the North.[40]

Michigan state holiday

In 1871, Michigan made "Decoration Day" an official state holiday and by 1890, every northern state had followed suit. There was no standard program for the ceremonies, but they were typically sponsored by the Women's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which had 100,000 members. By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near major battlefields and thus mainly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C[41]

Waterloo, New York proclamation

On May 26, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson designated an "official" birthplace of the holiday by signing the presidential proclamation naming Waterloo, New York, as the holder of the title. This action followed House Concurrent Resolution 587, in which the 89th Congress had officially recognized that the patriotic tradition of observing Memorial Day had begun one hundred years prior in Waterloo, New York.[42] The village credits druggist Henry C. Welles and county clerk John B. Murray as the founders of the holiday. Scholars have determined that the Waterloo account is a myth.[16] Snopes and Live Science also discredit the Waterloo account.[43][44]

Early National History

In April 1865, following Lincoln's assassination, commemorations were widespread. The more than 600,000 soldiers of both sides who died in the Civil War meant that burial and memorialization took on new cultural significance. Under the leadership of women during the war, an increasingly formal practice of decorating graves had taken shape. In 1865, the federal government also began creating the United States National Cemetery System for the Union war dead.[45]

By the 1880s, ceremonies were becoming more consistent across geography as the GAR provided handbooks that presented specific procedures, poems, and Bible verses for local post commanders to utilize in planning the local event. Historian Stuart McConnell reports:

on the day itself, the post assembled and marched to the local cemetery to decorate the graves of the fallen, an enterprise meticulously organized months in advance to assure that none were missed. Finally came a simple and subdued graveyard service involving prayers, short patriotic speeches, and music ... and at the end perhaps a rifle salute.[46]

Relationship to Confederate Memorial Day

In 1868, some Southern public figures began adding the label "Confederate" to their commemorations, claiming Northerners had appropriated the holiday.[47][20][48] The first official celebration of Confederate Memorial Day as a public holiday occurred in 1874, following a proclamation by the Georgia legislature.[49] By 1916, ten states celebrated it, on June 3, the birthday of CSA President Jefferson Davis.[49] Other states chose late April dates, or May 10, commemorating Davis' capture.[49]

The Ladies Memorial Association played a key role in using Memorial Day rituals to preserve Confederate culture.[10] Various dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June were adopted in different Southern states. Across the South, associations were founded, many by women, to establish and care for permanent cemeteries for the Confederate dead, organize commemorative ceremonies, and sponsor appropriate monuments as a permanent way of remembering the Confederate dead. The most important of these was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which grew from 17,000 members in 1900 to nearly 100,000 women by World War I. They were "strikingly successful at raising money to build Confederate monuments, lobbying legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, and working to shape the content of history textbooks."[50]

By 1890, there was a shift from the emphasis on honoring specific soldiers to a public commemoration of the Confederate South.[9] Changes in the ceremony's hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South. By 1913, David Blight argues, the theme of American nationalism shared equal time with the Confederate.[51]

Decoration Day to Memorial Day

By the 20th century, various Union memorial traditions, celebrated on different days, merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the U.S. military service.[1] Indiana from the 1860s to the 1920s saw numerous debates on how to expand the celebration. It was a favorite lobbying activity of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). An 1884 GAR handbook explained that Memorial Day was "the day of all days in the G.A.R. Calendar" in terms of mobilizing public support for pensions. It advised family members to "exercise great care" in keeping the veterans sober.[52]

Memorial Day speeches became an occasion for veterans, politicians, and ministers to commemorate the Civil War and, at first, to rehash the "atrocities" of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation. People of all religious beliefs joined together and the point was often made that German and Irish soldiers -- ethnic minorities which faced discrimination in the United States -- had become true Americans in the "baptism of blood" on the battlefield.[53]

In the national capital in 1913 the four-day "Blue-Gray Reunion" featured parades, re-enactments, and speeches from a host of dignitaries, including President Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner elected to the White House since the War. James Heflin of Alabama gave the main address. Heflin was a noted orator; his choice as Memorial Day speaker was criticized, as he was opposed for his support of segregation; however, his speech was moderate in tone and stressed national unity and goodwill, gaining him praise from newspapers.[54]

The name "Memorial Day", which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II[55] but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.[56] On June 28, 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend.[57] The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971.[57] After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress's change of date within a few years.

By the early 20th century, the GAR complained more and more about the younger generation. In 1913, one Indiana veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a "tendency ... to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears".[58] Indeed, in 1911 the scheduling of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway car race (later named the Indianapolis 500) was vehemently opposed by the increasingly elderly GAR. The state legislature in 1923 rejected holding the race on the holiday. But the new American Legion and local officials wanted the big race to continue, so Governor Warren McCray vetoed the bill and the race went on.[59]

Civil religious holiday

Memorial Day endures as a holiday which most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocated returning to the original date. The VFW stated in 2002:

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.[60]

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 pm.[61]

On Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.[62] It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.[63]

The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.[64] The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the people who gave their lives for their country.

Across the United States, the central event is attending one of the thousands of parades held on Memorial Day in large and small cities. Most of these feature marching bands and an overall military theme with the Active Duty, Reserve, National Guard and Veteran service members participating along with military vehicles from various wars.

Scholars,[65][66][67][68] following the lead of sociologist Robert Bellah, often make the argument that the United States has a secular "civil religion" – one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint – that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion, in contrast to that of France, was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain, it was not tied to a specific denomination, such as the Church of England. The Americans borrowed from different religious traditions so that the average American saw no conflict between the two, and deep levels of personal motivation were aligned with attaining national goals.[69]

Longest observance

Since 1868 Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has held annual Memorial Day parades which it claims to be the nation's oldest continuously running. Grafton, WV has also had an ongoing parade since 1868. However, the Memorial Day parade in Rochester, Wisconsin, predates Doylestown's by one year.[70][71]

Memorial Day poppies

In 1915, following the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a physician with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote the poem, "In Flanders Fields". Its opening lines refer to the fields of poppies that grew among the soldiers' graves in Flanders.[72]

In 1918, inspired by the poem, YWCA worker Moina Michael attended a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries' conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen more to others present. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.[73]

Observance dates (1971–present)

YearMemorial Day
19722000202820562084May 29
19732001202920572085May 28
19742002203020582086May 27
19752003203120592087May 26
197620042032206020882100May 31
197720052033206120892101May 30
197820062034206220902102May 29
197920072035206320912103May 28
198020082036206420922104May 26
198120092037206520932105May 25
198220102038206620942106May 31
198320112039206720952107May 30
198420122040206820962108May 28
198520132041206920972109May 27
198620142042207020982110May 26
198720152043207120992111May 25
19882016204420722112May 30
19892017204520732113May 29
19902018204620742114May 28
19912019204720752115May 27
19922020204820762116May 25
19932021204920772117May 31
19942022205020782118May 30
19952023205120792119May 29
19962024205220802120May 27
19972025205320812121May 26
19982026205420822122May 25
197119992027205520832123May 31

Decoration Day (Appalachia and Liberia)

Decoration Days in Southern Appalachia and Liberia are an unbroken tradition which arose by the 19th century. Decoration practices are localized and unique to individual families, cemeteries, and communities, but common elements that unify the various Decoration Day practices are thought to represent syncretism of predominantly Christian cultures in 19th century Southern Appalachia with pre-Christian influences from Scotland, Ireland, and African cultures. Appalachian and Liberian cemetery decoration traditions are thought to have more in common with one another than with United States Memorial Day traditions which are focused on honoring the military dead.[74] Appalachian and Liberian cemetery decoration traditions pre-date the United States Memorial Day holiday.[75]

In the United States, cemetery decoration practices have been recorded in the Appalachian regions of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, northern South Carolina, northern Georgia, northern and central Alabama, and northern Mississippi. Appalachian cemetery decoration has also been observed in areas outside Appalachia along routes of westward migration from that region: northern Louisiana, northeastern Texas, Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, and southern Missouri.

According to scholars Alan and Karen Jabbour, "the geographic spread ... from the Smokies to northeastern Texas and Liberia, offer strong evidence that the southern Decoration Day originated well back in the nineteenth century. The presence of the same cultural tradition throughout the Upland South argues for the age of the tradition, which was carried westward (and eastward to Africa) by nineteenth-century migration and has survived in essentially the same form till the present."[31]

While these customs may have inspired in part rituals to honor military dead like Memorial Day, numerous differences exist between Decoration Day customs and Memorial Day, including that the date is set differently by each family or church for each cemetery to coordinate the maintenance, social, and spiritual aspects of decoration.[74][76][77]

In film, literature, and music


  • Memorial Day (2012) is a war film starring James Cromwell, Jonathan Bennett, and John Cromwell.

  • Logan Lucky (2017) starring Channing Tatum


  • Charles Ives's symphonic poem Decoration Day depicted the holiday as he experienced it in his childhood, with his father's band leading the way to the town cemetery, the playing of "Taps" on a trumpet, and a livelier march tune on the way back to the town. It is frequently played with three other Ives works based on holidays, as the second movement of A Symphony: New England Holidays.


Poems commemorating Memorial Day include:

  • Francis M. Finch's "The Blue and the Gray" [96] (1867)[78]

  • Michael Anania's "Memorial Day" (1994)[79]

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Decoration Day" (1882)[80]

  • Joyce Kilmer's "Memorial Day"

See also

United States

  • Remembrance Day at the Gettysburg Battlefield, an annual honoring of Civil War dead held near the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

  • A Great Jubilee Day, first held the last Monday in May 1783 (American Revolutionary War)

  • Armed Forces Day, third Saturday in May, a more narrowly observed remembrance honoring those currently serving in the U.S. military

  • Armistice Day, November 11, the original name of Veterans Day in the United States

  • Confederate Memorial Day, observed on various dates in many states in the South in memory of those killed fighting for the Confederacy during the American Civil War

  • Memorial Day massacre of 1937, May 30, held to remember demonstrators shot by police in Chicago

  • Nora Fontaine Davidson, credited with the first Memorial Day ceremony in Petersburg, Virginia

  • Patriot Day, September 11, in memory of people killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks

  • United States military casualties of war

  • Veterans Day, November 11, in memory of American military deaths during World War I. See Remembrance Day for similar observances in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other Commonwealth nations.

Other countries

  • ANZAC Day, April 25, an analogous observance in Australia and New Zealand

  • Armistice Day, November 11, the original name of Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada, the United Kingdom, and other Commonwealth nations

  • Heroes' Day, various dates in various countries recognizing national heroes

  • International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, May 29, international observance recognizing United Nations peacekeepers

  • Remembrance Day, November 11, a similar observance in Canada, the United Kingdom, and many other Commonwealth nations originally marking the end of World War I

  • Remembrance of the Dead ("Dodenherdenking"), May 4, a similar observance in the Netherlands

  • Volkstrauertag ("People's Mourning Day"), a similar observance in Germany usually in November

  • Yom Hazikaron (Israeli memorial day), day before Independence Day (Israel), around Iyar 4

  • Decoration Day (Canada), a Canadian holiday that recognizes veterans of Canada's military which has largely been eclipsed by the similar Remembrance Day


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