Although most people associate Memorial Day with a three-day weekend, it began as a way to remember fallen Civil War soldiers.
Even today, the holiday’s origin is much debated. However, the official U.S. Memorial Day website reports that during the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the Memorial Day holiday.
Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was declared an official holiday on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.
In his General Order 11, he wrote:
“The 30th day 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 church-yard in the land.”
Like Logan ordered, holiday observance began on May 30, 1868 when flowers were placed on Union and Confederate soldiers’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery.
New York was the first state to recognize and celebrate Memorial Day, followed by all northern states. The south did not begin observing the holiday until after World War I, when all fallen soldiers were acknowledged.
People began wearing red poppies on Memorial Day after Moina Michael’s poem, “We Keep the Faith,” published in 1918, referred to the flower:
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.
Michael led the movement by wearing the very first poppy and selling them to friends and family. The money benefited the military servicemen.
While visiting America in the early 20th century, a French woman named Madam Guerin, saw the American Memorial Day custom and brought it back to France with her.
She fabricated poppies and raised money for orphaned children and widows. Eventually, she worked with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in an attempt to raise money for disabled veterans.
Memorial Day’s observance date was changed from May 30 to the last Monday in May in 1971. In order to ensure a three-day weekend for Federal holidays, Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971.
The tradition of playing “Taps” and the moment of silence began in December 2000 by the National Moment of Remembrance resolution. At 3 p.m. local time, all Americans are expected to stop what they are doing and collectively join in the moment of silence.
Every two years since 1989, Hawaiian Senator David Inouye has proposed to Congress to restore the original Memorial Day.
“In our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation,” he said.
“Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”
“My bill would restore Memorial Day to May 30 and authorize our flag to fly at half mast on that day.”
To date, no further action has been taken on the bill.
Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.