Memorial Day has its roots in Decoration Day in the latter part of the US Civil War. The first widely publicized observance of Decoration Day was in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865 when newly free black folk came together to memorialize the graveyard of 257 Union soldiers and labeled the soldiers buried there the “Martyrs of the Race Course” on May 1, 1865.
David W. Blight described the day:
This was the first Memorial Day. African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.
Based on my own personal and very unscientific observations, I have come to the conclusion that many, if not most, Americans under the age of fifty do know really know exactly what Memorial Day is all about anymore.
A quick look at an Google Image Search for Memorial Day shows how muddled the message has become:
One of them was even an animated gif… with sparkly glitter:
Lets Get it Right
The root of this problem is that we have two major US holidays that focus on the military: Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is quite clear on the meaning and purpose of Memorial Day:
Memorial Day, which is observed on the last Monday of May, commemorates the men and women who died while in the military service. (my emphasis) In observance of the holiday, many people visit cemeteries and memorials, and volunteers often place American flags on each grave site at national cemeteries. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time.
Over time, the preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day”. Memorial Day, as the name, did not become commonplace until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967 . On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. 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.
This move was not universally popular. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) advocate returning to the original date 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 a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day.
Starting in 1987 Hawaii’s Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date. Inouye continued introducing the resolution until his death in 2012.
Memorial Day, at its roots, was a solemn holiday aimed at bringing us together as a society and within our local communities. But now it coincides with a three day weekend at the start of the summer holiday season. This means parades and somber memorials have been replaced much smaller gatherings of people to barbecue or get ready for the summer season.
This 1903 Memorial Day proclamation gives a glimpse of the holiday’s meaning in the years between the Civil War and World War I.
It seems like Veterans Day has become conflated with Memorial Day. Veterans Day is an official US holiday honoring everyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces. This federal holiday that is observed on November 11 and coincides with other holidays such as Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, which are celebrated in other parts of the world and also mark the anniversary of the end of World War I. (Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice with Germany went into effect.)
We should all be grateful to the veterans – active and inactive – who have worked hard to keep us safe and support our national goals around the world. They deserve bit of our respect and support while they serve and while they transition back into civilian life. On Memorial Day we can be grateful for our veterans who have made it home safely, but please remember, they also deserve our help in remembering and observing the REAL meaning of Memorial Day since many of them know service members who did not return home alive.
Upper Image: Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia – Carol M. Highsmith, photographer.