Memorial Day is coming up so I thought I’d write a quick essay on the history of the holiday. On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, The Grand Army of the Republic (a group of Union veterans), thought that the country should have a day designated to cleaning up the graves of the war dead and placing flowers on the headstones. They decided on May 30th because it was a day when flowers would be blooming throughout most of the country.

The first event was held on the property around a mansion in Arlington, VA which had been the home of General Robert E. Lee. During the war, the Union began burying soldiers on the property and it eventually became known as Arlington National Cemetery. Anyway, there were dignitaries and speeches and both Union and Confederate soldiers laid flowers on graves.

Yet, while that is the official story, the idea for decorating graves of dead soldiers began a few years earlier in Columbus, Mississippi on April 25, 1866. A group of women visited a run-down Confederate cemetery for soldiers who’d died in the Battle of Shiloh. They cleaned up the leaves and brush left over from winter and laid flowers on the headstones. But they noticed a separate part of the cemetery that was even more neglected with many unnamed tombs. As they cleaned those up as well, they discovered graves of Union soldiers. By the time they were finished, all of the graves were cleaned and decorated with flowers and no one knew who fought for which side.

There are a bunch of other cities, including Macon and Columbus, GA as well as Richmond, VA, who claim similar stories. Where war widows decided to clean up Civil War graves and leave flowers, mostly in the south were the majority of the soldiers of both sides had died and were buried. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day was being celebrated all over the country. Many of these events were local and informal and they always included the cleaning of graves and the laying of flowers. Eventually, individual state legislatures passed laws marking the day as a local holiday.

After WWI, Memorial Day was expanded to honor all those who died in battle on behalf of the country. In 1971, Congress made Memorial Day a national holiday always on the last Monday in May. Some towns still call the holiday Decoration Day, and there are still some friendly disputes about where the idea originally came from. Although, technically, the idea of honoring false soldiers dates back to the Peloponnesian War (24 centuries ago) when Pericles, the Athenian leader, offered a tribute to his soldiers who’d died in the war: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”

In December 2000, Congress passed a law called “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579″. This act created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance whose charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by celebrating Memorial Day with a National Moment of Remembrance. This moment of remembrance asks all Americans, at 3 pm, to offer a moment of silence in memory of those who’ve died for this nation. It is a way to remind us of why we celebrate Memorial Day.

Regardless of how you celebrate next week, I wish you all a safe and happy Memorial Day.


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