The History: Originally Decoration Day, now Memorial Day
TINA L. SCOTT
According to History.com, Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day which began on May 5, 1868, when General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “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,” he proclaimed. It was a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. It is said the confederate women of the south, who decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers, may have inspired the idea.
Other Northern states embraced the idea and by 1890, Decoration Day was an official state holiday observed annually on May 30 in northern states, while Southern states honored the dead on separate days. Until after World War I, that is. Then the day expanded to commemorating the lives of those American military personnel who had died in any war. Subsequently, personnel who died in World War II, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now also honored on Memorial Day.
In 1968, U.S. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, establishing Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, effective in 1971, and declaring it a federal holiday. It is just happenstance that this year, in 2022, Memorial Day actually falls on May 30.
There were many who objected to the change, as one of the reasons for its creation was to make a three-day weekend for federal employees, and those objectors worried that the holiday would become more about a three-day weekend and the beginning of summer than about honoring the courageous men and women who had died serving their country in war. Some veterans groups continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observance. It is true there are many Americans who do not know or understand the true meaning for the observance of Memorial Day.
Formal rituals performed on Memorial Day include hanging the flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day when it is then raised to the top of the flag pole. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed legislation encouraging all Americans to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time.
Many communities across the U.S. host Memorial Day parades, including military organizations, personnel, and veterans, with Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C. holding the largest national parades.
Many Americans visit cemeteries and memorials to place flowers on graves or wear a red poppy to remember fallen soldiers. The tradition of the poppy began in World War I.
In Merrill and surrounding communities, local veterans organizations traditionally hold ceremonies in cemeteries honoring the fallen. Merrill’s VFW Post 1638 hosted their annual ceremony locally. [See Memorial Day in Merrill.]