Memorial Day: A Journey Through Its History and Origins

Tracing the Origins and History of Memorial Day
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Every year on the last Monday of May, America observes Memorial Day, a solemn occasion dedicated to honoring the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military. This tradition, which dates back to the years following the Civil War, was originally known as Decoration Day.

The Origin of the Holiday

Decoration Day was first observed on May 30, 1868. General John A. Logan, a leader in the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, selected this date to pay tribute to the soldiers who perished in the Civil War. On that inaugural Decoration Day, over 20,000 Union and Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery were adorned with flowers. Former Union General and Ohio Congressman James Garfield delivered a speech to commemorate the fallen, and about 5,000 people participated in decorating the graves with flowers, wreaths, and flags.


While the exact origins of Memorial Day are somewhat unclear, many communities are believed to have independently initiated their own memorial events. Notably, one of the earliest recorded commemorations was organized by a group of formerly enslaved individuals in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, shortly after the Confederacy surrendered, according to

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When Did Memorial Day Become a Federal Holiday?

Photo: Us Embassy

The concept of Decoration Day quickly spread. In 1873, New York was the first state to officially recognize Memorial Day as a legal holiday, as noted by PBS. By the late 1800s, numerous cities and communities across the United States were observing the day, and several states had also declared it a legal holiday.


After World War I, Memorial Day expanded to honor all Americans who had died in any war, not just the Civil War. This broader recognition helped establish it as a national holiday. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day from its traditional date of May 30 to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend for federal employees. This change took effect in 1971, the same year Memorial Day was officially recognized as a federal holiday.

Today, people commemorate Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. It remains a day of profound respect and remembrance, continuing the tradition that began so many years ago.

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