Memorial Day is more than just about a three-day weekend and the first sunburn of the year. It’s a day to honor those who gave their life in the service of their homeland. Here are a few details to put the occasion in context.
Memorial Day was established by Major General John A. Logan.
General Logan, the Carbondale speaker, was also the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ group. He issued General Order No. 11 on May 5, 1868, designating May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise beautifying the graves of comrades who perished in service of their nation during the late revolt.”
The directives expressed the hope that the commemoration would be “continued from year to year while a combat survivor survives to honor the memory of his lost colleagues.”
Decoration Day was the official title for Memorial Day.
Decoration Day has long been associated with the practice of placing flowers, wreaths, and flags on gravestones. The name “Memorial Day” dates back to 1882, but the previous name didn’t fade away until after World War II, and it wasn’t until 1967 that federal legislation made it the official name.
Memorial Day is marked by its own set of traditions.
Although General Order No. 11 specified that “no kind of ceremony is prescribed in this celebration,” various customs and symbols grew linked with the occasion over time. The flag is traditionally flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raised to the top of the staff until dusk.
The Memorial Day ritual of wearing red fake poppies was inspired by John McCrea’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” which was written during World War I. Moina Michael, a Georgia teacher and volunteer war worker, started a campaign in 1915 to make the poppy a symbol of gratitude to veterans and for “keeping the faith with all who fell,” and the selling of poppies has helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Confederate Memorial Day is still observed in several states.
Several Southern states continue to observe Confederate Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering the Confederate dead. Alabama observes Confederate Heroes Day on January 19 and Confederate Decoration Day on June 3, respectively, but does not declare them state holidays.
Memorial Day is more of a brand, than a holiday.
It’s a bit of a stretch to call Memorial Day a “national holiday.” While Congress has created ten federal holidays, including Memorial Day, they are solely applicable to government employees and the District of Columbia. Established in 1888, Federal Memorial Day permitted Civil War soldiers, many of whom were paid by the government, to honor their dead friends without losing a day’s pay.
Our holidays were enacted state by state for the rest of us. In 1873, New York became the first state to declare Memorial Day an official holiday. By the 1890s, most northern states had followed suit. The former Confederate states were not enthusiastic about a holiday honoring those who “united to suppress the late rebellion,” as General Logan put it. The May 30 Memorial Day was not adopted until after World War I, by which time its purpose had been broadened to include those who died in all of the country’s wars.
Memorial Day was moved from May 30 to the final Monday in May after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971.