Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday that is observed on the last Monday of May. It was formerly known as Decoration Day. This holiday commemorates U.S. men and women who have died in military service to their country. It began first to honor Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War. After World War I, it expanded to include those who died in any war or military action. One of the longest standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, which has been held in conjuction with Memorial Day since 1911.
Many people observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 P.M. Washington time. Another tradition is to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. Volunteers place a U.S. mini-flag upon each gravesite located in a National Cemetery.
In addition to remembrance, Memorial Day is also a time for picnics, family gatherings, and sporting events. Some Americans view Memorial Day as the unofficial beginning of summer and Labor Day as the unofficial end of the season. The national click it or ticket campaign ramps up beginning Memorial Day weekend, noting the beginning of the most dangerous season for auto accidents and other safety related incidents. The USAF "101 Critical days of Summer" also begin on this day as well. Some Americans use Memorial Day to also honor any family members who have died, not just servicemen.
Memorial Day formerly occurred on May 30, and some, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW), advocate returning to this fixed date, although the signifigance of the date is tenuous. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address, "Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed greatly to the general's public's nonchalant observance of Memorial Day."Hawaii's Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, has repeatedly introduced measures to return Memorial Day to its traditional day since 1998.
Following the end of the Civil War, many communities set aside to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the cities creating an early memorial day include Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennyslvania; Richmond, Virginia; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, MIssissippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. These observances eventually coalesced around Decoration Day, honoring the Union dead, and the several Confederate Memorial Days.
According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department (YUHD), the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic race track in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who had died while held hostage. A parade with thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers was followed by patriotic singing and a picnic.
The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was a credited with being the birthplace because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter, and because it is likely that the friendship of General John Murray, a distinguished citizen of Waterloo, and General John A. Logan, who led the call for the day to be observed each year and helped spread the event nationwide, was a key factor in its growth.
General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in the land, and if he could, he would have made it a holiday.
General Logan had been impressed by the way the South honored their dead with a special day and decided the Union needed a similar day. Reportedly, Logan said that it was most fitting; that the ancients, especially the Greeks, had honored their dead, particularly their heroes, by chaplets of laurel and flowers, and that he intended to issue an order designating a day for decorating the grave of every soldier in the land, and if he could he would have made it a holiday.
Logan had been the principal speaker in a citywide memorial observation on April 29, 1866, at a cemetery in Carbondale, Illinois, an event that likely gave him the idea to make it a national holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans' organization, Logan issued a proclamation that "Decoration Day" be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle. The tombs of fallen Union soldiers were decorated in remembrance of this day.
Many of the states of the U.S. South refused to celebrate Decoration Day, due to lingering hostility towards the Union Army and also because there were very few veterans of the Union Army who lived in the South. Many Southern States did not recognize Memorial Day until after World War I since many veterans of World War I were from the south, although they continued to have a separate Confederate Memorial Day, with the date varying from state to state. A notable exception was Columbus, Mississippi, which in its 1866 Decoration Day commemorated both the Union and Confederate casualties buried in its cemetery.
The alternative name of "Memorial Day" was first used in 1882, but did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967 . On June 28, 1968, the United States Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington's Birthday (which evolved into Presidents' Day), Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971 . After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply at the state level, all fifty states adopted the measure within a few years, although Veterans Day was eventually changed back to its traditional date. Ironically, most corporate businesses no longer close on Columbus Day or Veterans Day, and an increasing number are staying open on President's Day as well. The holiday has endured as one where most businesses stay closed because it marks the beginning of the "summer vacation season" (similar to neighboring Canada's Victoria Day, which occurs on the prior Monday).
Given its origins in the American Civil War, Memorial Day is not a holiday outside the U.S.. Countries of the Commonwealth, as well as France and Belgium, honor members of the military who died in war on or around Remembrance Day (November 11), which has its origin in World War I. The U.S. uses that date as Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day) and honors all veterans, living and dead. In Ireland, the National Day of Commemoration commemorates all Irish men and women who died in past wars or on service with the United Nations.