Memorial Day

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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 name Memorial Day
Observed by Americans
Type National
Observances Remembrance of American service members who have died in armed conflicts or served
Date Last Monday in May
2018 date May 28  (2018-05-28)
2019 date May 27  (2019-05-27)
2020 date May 25  (2020-05-25)
2021 date May 31  (2021-05-31)
Frequency Annual

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 now observed on the last Monday of May, Memorial Day having been 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.

Claimed origins[edit]

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

1870 Decoration Day parade in St. Paul, Minnesota

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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

Charleston, South Carolina[edit]

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[edit]

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] The women were the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus. They were represented by Mary Ann Williams (Mrs. Charles J. Williams) who, as Secretary, wrote a letter to press in March 1866 asking their assistance in establishing annual holiday to decorate the graves of soldiers throughout the south.[28] The letter was reprinted in several southern states and the plans were noted in newspapers in the north. The date of April 26 was chosen. The holiday was observed in Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Columbus and elsewhere in Georgia as well as Memphis, TN; Louisville, KY; New Orleans, LA; Jackson, MS and across the south.[21] In some cities, mostly in Virginia, other dates in May and June were observed. General John A. Logan commented on the observances in a speech to veterans on July 4, 1866 in Salem, IL.[29] After General Logan’s General Order No. 11 to the Grand Army of the Republic to observe May 30, 1868, the earlier version of the holiday began to be referred to as Confederate Memorial Day.[21]

Precedents in the North[edit]

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania[edit]

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.[30]

Boalsburg, Pennslvania[edit]

On July 4, 1864, ladies decorated soldiers' graves according to local historians in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania.[31] Boalsburg promotes itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day.[32]

National Decoration Day[edit]

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.[33] With his proclamation, Logan adopted the Memorial Day practice that had begun in the Southern states three years earlier.[34][35][36][28][34][37][38]

The northern states quickly adopted the holiday. In 1868, memorial events were held in 183 cemeteries in 27 states, and 336 in 1869.[39]. One author claims that the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle.[40] 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.[41]

Michigan state holiday[edit]

Memorial Day, Boston by Henry Sandham

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[42]

Waterloo, New York proclamation[edit]

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.[43] 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.[44][45]

Early National History[edit]

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.[46]

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.[47]

Relationship to Confederate Memorial Day[edit]

Confederate Memorial Monument in Montgomery, Alabama

In 1868, some Southern public figures began adding the label "Confederate" to their commemorations, claiming Northerners had appropriated the holiday.[48][20][49] The first official celebration of Confederate Memorial Day as a public holiday occurred in 1874, following a proclamation by the Georgia legislature.[50] By 1916, ten states celebrated it, on June 3, the birthday of CSA President Jefferson Davis.[50] Other states chose late April dates, or May 10, commemorating Davis' capture.[50]

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."[51]

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.[52]

Decoration Day to Memorial Day[edit]

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.[53]

"On Decoration Day" Political cartoon c. 1900 by John T. McCutcheon. Caption: "You bet I'm goin' to be a soldier, too, like my Uncle David, when I grow up."

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.[54]

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.[55]

The name "Memorial Day", which was first attested in 1882, gradually became more common than "Decoration Day" after World War II[56] but was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.[57] 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.[58] 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.[58] 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.[citation needed] 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".[59] 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.[60]

Civil religious holiday[edit]

The United States Marine Band on Memorial Day

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.[61]

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3:00 pm.[62]

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.[63] It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day.[64]

Memorial Day observances in small New England towns are often marked by dedications and remarks by veterans and politicians.

The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol.[65] 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.[citation needed]

Scholars,[66][67][68][69] 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.[70]

Longest observance[edit]

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.[71][72]

Memorial Day poppies[edit]

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.[73]

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.[74]

Observance dates (1971–present)[edit]

Year Memorial Day
1972 2000 2028 2056 2084 May 29
1973 2001 2029 2057 2085 May 28
1974 2002 2030 2058 2086 May 27
1975 2003 2031 2059 2087 May 26
1976 2004 2032 2060 2088 2100 May 31
1977 2005 2033 2061 2089 2101 May 30
1978 2006 2034 2062 2090 2102 May 29
1979 2007 2035 2063 2091 2103 May 28
1980 2008 2036 2064 2092 2104 May 26
1981 2009 2037 2065 2093 2105 May 25
1982 2010 2038 2066 2094 2106 May 31
1983 2011 2039 2067 2095 2107 May 30
1984 2012 2040 2068 2096 2108 May 28
1985 2013 2041 2069 2097 2109 May 27
1986 2014 2042 2070 2098 2110 May 26
1987 2015 2043 2071 2099 2111 May 25
1988 2016 2044 2072 2112 May 30
1989 2017 2045 2073 2113 May 29
1990 2018 2046 2074 2114 May 28
1991 2019 2047 2075 2115 May 27
1992 2020 2048 2076 2116 May 25
1993 2021 2049 2077 2117 May 31
1994 2022 2050 2078 2118 May 30
1995 2023 2051 2079 2119 May 29
1996 2024 2052 2080 2120 May 27
1997 2025 2053 2081 2121 May 26
1998 2026 2054 2082 2122 May 25
1971 1999 2027 2055 2083 2123 May 31

Related traditions[edit]

Decoration Day (Appalachia and Liberia)[edit]

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.[75] Appalachian and Liberian cemetery decoration traditions pre-date the United States Memorial Day holiday.[76]

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."[33]

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.[75][77][78]

In film, literature, and music[edit]



  • 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:

See also[edit]

United States[edit]

Other countries[edit]

  • 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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Further reading[edit]

  • Albanese, Catherine. "Requiem for Memorial Day: Dissent in the Redeemer Nation", American Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Oct. 1974), pp. 386–98 in JSTOR
  • Bellah, Robert N. "Civil Religion in America". Daedalus 1967 96(1): 1–21. online edition
  • Bellware, Daniel, and Richard Gardiner, The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday in America (Columbus State University, 2014).
  • Blight, David W. "Decoration Day: The Origins of Memorial Day in North and South" in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds. The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (2004), online edition pp. 94–129; the standard scholarly history
  • Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2000) ch. 3, "Decorations" excerpt and text search
  • Buck, Paul H. The Road to Reunion, 1865–1900 (1937)
  • Cherry, Conrad. "Two American Sacred Ceremonies: Their Implications for the Study of Religion in America", American Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Winter, 1969), pp. 739–54 in JSTOR
  • Dennis, Matthew. Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (2002)
  • Jabbour, Alan, and Karen Singer Jabbour. Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians (University of North Carolina Press; 2010)
  • Myers, Robert J. "Memorial Day". Chapter 24 in Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays. (1972)
  • Robert Haven Schauffler (1911). Memorial Day: Its Celebration, Spirit, and Significance as Related in Prose and Verse, with a Non-sectional Anthology of the Civil W. BiblioBazaar reprint 2010.

External links[edit]