Why Americans Celebrate Memorial Day

 

This Monday, May 28, is Memorial Day. This day is one of ten U.S. federal holidays celebrated each year. Two of these holidays are set aside to honor people who served in the U.S. armed forces: Memorial Day and Veterans Day. However, many people confuse the purposes of the two holidays.

Veterans Day is always celebrated on November 11. Originally, it was called Armistice Day. First observed on November 11, 1919, Armistice Day celebrated the first anniversary of the end of World War I. Armistice Day became a federal holiday in 1926. In 1954, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in order to honor all U.S. veterans, not just those who served in World War I. In the first Veterans Day Proclamation in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said that the day was a time to “solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom.”

Memorial Day and Veterans Day have one major difference, however. While Veterans Day celebrates veterans both living or dead, Memorial Day specifically honors anyone who died while serving in the U.S. military. In an article published in the Baltimore Sun, Sarah Kickler Kelber reflects upon this difference.

“All across social media and elsewhere, I see well-meaning declarations thanking members of the military for their service,” Kelber said of Memorial Day. “As full of good intentions as these statements are, they are still troubling. When you thank the living on the day meant to honor the dead, it’s a little bit awkward for everyone involved.”

Like Veterans Day, Memorial Day also began as a way to honor Americans killed in a specific conflict, in this case, the U.S. Civil War.

By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, more soldiers had died as part of this conflict than in any other in U.S. history. This record still stands in 2018. Many historians disagree about the number of soldiers killed in the Civil War. One estimate states that while 405,399 U.S. soldiers died in World War II and 115,516 died in World War I, a total of 620,000 American soldiers died during the Civil War. In all of U.S. history, the total of those who have died while fighting wars is 1,264,000 soldiers. The total number who died in all wars other than the Civil War is 644,000, only 24,000 more than those who died in the Civil War alone. After so many deaths, the period after the Civil War saw the establishment of the first U.S. national cemeteries.

Within a few years of the war’s end, many Americans started attending tributes to soldiers who fell during the war. As part of these springtime tributes, people would recite prayers and decorate the graves of soldiers with flowers. By 1890, each of the former Union states had made this holiday, called Decoration Day, an official state holiday. Although Southern states honored the fallen as well, they would do so on separate days until after World War I.

Several U.S. towns and cities claim to be the first to have held Decoration Day tributes. Among them are Columbus, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Richmond, Virginia; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; and Carbondale, Illinois. However, in 1966, the U.S. government declared that Waterloo, New York, was the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The government chose Waterloo because that town’s celebration had been an annual community-wide event. On the first celebration on May 5, 1866, Waterloo’s businesses were closed and people decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, the leader of a Northern Civil War veterans group, asked for Americans to honor soldiers who died in the war on a specific day. He chose May 30 because it was not the anniversary of any particular Civil War battle. “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 now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” General Logan said.

The first Decoration Day was May 30, 1868. At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, former general, then current Ohio Congressman and future U.S. President James Garfield, spoke. He started on a somber tone. “I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion,” Garfield confessed. “If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.”

However, Congressman Garfield managed to select words both poetic and moving to pay tribute to the fallen Civil War soldiers. Much of what he said continues to apply to Memorial Day celebrations today.

With words we make promises, plight faith, praise virtue. Promises may not be kept; plighted faith may be broken; and vaunted virtue be only the cunning mask of vice. We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.

On that day at Arlington, 5,000 visitors decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. However, these graves only represent about three percent of all soldiers who died during the Civil War.

The scope of Decoration Day changed after the end of World War I in 1918. Since so many American soldiers died in this conflict, the scope of the holiday increased to honor soldiers who died in all U.S. wars. Of the 4,355,000 Americans who fought in World War I an estimated 115,516 died. In a Memorial Day Address at Arlington in 1917, about 18 months before the end of the war, President Woodrow Wilson said that while the celebration was touched with sorrow, he saw no reason to feel sorry for those who gave their lives. “I for one do not see how we can have any thoughts of pity for the men whose memory we honor to-day. I do not pity them. I envy them, rather, because theirs is the great work for liberty accomplished, and we are in the midst of a work unfinished, testing our strength where their strength has already been tested.”

Decoration Day continued to be celebrated annually on May 30. However, over time, it slowly came to be known by its modern name, Memorial Day. However, the date of the holiday would change. In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This act established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to give federal employees a three-day holiday. This act also made Memorial Day an official federal holiday. The act went into effect in 1971.

Today, Americans continue to celebrate Memorial Day. However, for many, this day has taken on a different significance. Although the summer solstice is between June 20 and 22 annually, many now view Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer. With chilly, cloudy, and wet winter weather behind them, many use this time to celebrate with friends and family, have outdoor barbecues, or take weekend trips.

Still, many Americans continue to honor fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. Cities across the U.S. host Memorial Day parades. Many people visit cemeteries and war memorials to honor the war dead. Each year more than 135,000 people visit Arlington National Cemetery over Memorial Day weekend.

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