The Memorial Day we celebrate is different from the first Memorial Day celebrated over 150 years ago honoring Civil War casualties. It wasn’t even about all who died in the conflict; instead, it was about those who served on behalf of the United States Army and Navy. Confederate soldiers were honored in their own communities on their own unofficial memorial days.
Fast forward to WWI.
This changed with “The Great War” when men and women from all states, including former Confederate states, sacrificed their lives for the United States of America, which now includes the many wars spanning the 20th and 21st centuries.
No one could’ve envisioned this future when Memorial Day began. Communities were still reeling from the devastation caused by the Civil War. The survivors were still burying their dead, an estimated 620,000 deceased, and Reconstruction had yet to begin. Comparing today’s U.S. population, the same number would total 6 million dead.
Most U.S. soldiers were buried far from their families, many in unmarked graves. After the war, the U.S. government made efforts to gather the dead, known and unknown, and in doing so memorialized them.
But nothing had been decreed just yet.
Officially, Memorial Day began when the commander of the Union Army’s largest veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), ordered its members to honor their fallen comrades on May 30, 1868.
His orders were clear: These ceremonies were to honor the men whose “soldiers’ lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains” and for their deceased comrades who ended “a rebellious tyranny” that had threatened the Union.
It was a day for those who fought for the United States and the Union cause.
Initially, it was not called Memorial Day. Instead, it was referred to as “Decoration Day” because people placed flowers on soldier graves. Because some local communities adorned soldiers’ graves before the GAR issued their order, many towns claim that they originated Memorial Day. In fact, newly freed slaves were among the first to decorate Union soldiers’ graves. By the end of the 19th century, all Northern states had officially recognized this holiday.
As generations passed, Americans fought and died in other wars (WWI & WWII, Korea, Vietnam and many others). These new wars created the Memorial Day we reflect on and celebrate today.
Critical to this change, the dead came from all regions of the United States.
It was not until World War I, when the wartime dead were in the hundreds of thousands, that the day expanded. Celebrations, often led by the American Legion, became more inclusive. Aging Civil War veterans, Spanish-American War veterans, and their sons and grandsons who served in WWI marched together to honor the dead of all wars. Additionally, WWII would add hundreds of thousands more dead to honor.
Despite the death toll, Memorial Day was still not a recognized federal holiday. Instead, just after the Korean War ended in 1954, the government recognized Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, to honor all veterans of all wars.
Finally, fourteen years later, in 1968, Congress made Memorial Day a federal holiday as a new generation of American soldiers gave their lives in Vietnam. The government then designated the last Monday in May to recognized the dead of all American wars.
As you go about your day, remember the men and women who, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently reasoned in his Gettysburg Address, “gave the last full measure of devotion.”