History of Decoration Day (Memorial Day)

Arlington National Cemetery

Memorial Day is a national holiday in the United States of America. It was originally known as Decoration Day until the First World War. While many States claim to have been the first to commemorate the holiday, and the exact year of its founding is disputed, most sources officially recognize the holiday as founded in 1868. The holiday was established by the Grand Army of the Republic, a veteran organization founded by Union soldiers who had fought in the Civil War, three years after the Confederates surrounded in 1865.

Memorial Day visitation
Many visit the graves of fallen loved ones on Memorial Day to pay their respects.

Nevertheless, there were memorial services in the spirit of holiday as early as 1866. In the city of Columbus, Mississippi, four women took the time to adorn the local cemetery with flowers where Union and Confederate soldiers killed at the Battle of Shiloh were equally honored as fallen warriors who died fighting for a cause they believed, and buried side-by-side as Americans. The celebration of this holiday was divisive and controversial until WWI when it was changed to honor all fallen American service members who had died in combat.

Nevertheless, even the earliest celebrations of it carried that mutual respect inherent to the memorial service in Mississippi back in 1866. Decoration Day spurred different, if not competing commemorations in the Northern and Southern States, as each saw the conflict differently. This changed after the last of the veterans of the Civil War had passed on and the First World War came to fruition. After that, and with the changing of the holiday to recognize all American service members killed in battle, the sentiment surrounding the holiday changed and became more universal.

Civil War Unknowns Monument
A Memorial Day ceremony circa 1915 at the Civil War Unknowns Monument.

Memorial Day unofficially marks the start of the summer season. It was originally declared to be the 30th of May by Major General John A. Logan, but was later changed to the last Monday of May with a federal act of Congress in 1971. It was believed that plenty of flowers would be in bloom around this time, which was conducive to the human practice of placing flowers on the graves of fallen warriors and honoring their sacrifice which dates back to Ancient Athens, if not earlier. In the United States, the President is expected to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Burial of the Unknown Soldier
The Unknown Soldier was an unidentified American serviceman who was killed in action in France during WWI and was buried in 1921.

In the year 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed. This established the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, tasked with fostering reverence and honor for all the fallen American heroes who have died in service of the United States, and to encourage people to give back something to their country which has given them the freedom to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Americans are encouraged to stop what they are doing at 3:00 p.m. in their local time and have a moment of silence where they reflect on the ultimate sacrifice of American warriors who have died across the centuries to protect the United States, from the Revolutionary War to the modern day.

Memorial Day is a special day to me. It gives me a chance to reflect on the heroes who fought in the Revolutionary War, who had their homes burned to the ground, their names slandered by their neighbors, and their family members slaughtered for daring to resist and stand against the Empire. It reminds me of the Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War to foment the vision of the Founding Fathers like Thomas Paine who criticized slavery as morally incompatible with the word of God, fighting for a world where all people were free from the chains of chattel slavery.

It also makes me stop and think about the battles which have been waged since, and those yet to come. It also makes me think back to the Bushido Code of the Japanese Samurai which existed from 1185 to 1868. The Samurai respected the enemies and did not strike them down out of anger. They showed reverence to those who had died in battle, and their sense of loyalty was absolute. The Buddhist Samurai also believed they would be condemned to eternal damnation in the afterlife since they were trained to kill, yet they still accepted the burden because they were loyal to the cause of protecting those who could not protect themselves. That level of service and devotion is worthy of respect.

Gravestones at Arlington
Gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery decorated on Memorial Day.

This reminds me of the original spirit of what we now know as Memorial Day. Americans have never been entirely united on the causes we fight for, yet are expected to respect those warriors who have fallen in service of these United States. Soldiers do not often choose the battles they fight, nor do they fight for anyone other than the survival of those beside them. They fight even when they disagree with the cause at hand. That level of service and devotion is admirable and worthy of the sincerest respect. Without that dedication, Humanity would likely not have the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as a guiding framework which will no doubt be used by future generations as a baseline for the framework of new nations.

Memorial Day is a day for Americans to appreciate the ultimate sacrifice which many fallen American warriors have made in order to protect the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. This sentiment is timeless and carries itself across the entire span of human history. From hunter-gatherers who would have defended their families from saber tooth tigers with sticks and stones, to the Allies who stormed the beaches of Normandy in the Second World War, we all likely have someone whom we are grateful to for giving their life in battle to defend others. For that, we should pay our respects on this day and honor their sacrifice.

May you all have a peaceful Memorial Day tomorrow.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

2 thoughts on “History of Decoration Day (Memorial Day)

  1. I really enjoy your unique blog – I follow via the RSS feed. I sometimes post your blog entries on my social media account.

    My family living and passed away is Marine Corps. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Your words mean a lot to me. It is good to know one’s work is appreciated. My family is Marine Corps as well. I actually sleep next to the USMC flag hanging on the wall in my bedroom.

      By the way, sorry for the delayed response. I saw your comment on the mobile WP app at first, and was unsure of how to respond. Then, I got carried away with work and forgot to reply for a while. I’ll definitely make sure I reply sooner in the future though.

      Liked by 1 person

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