Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day. On this day we remember those who have died in service of the United States of America. The first Memorial Day was proclaimed on May 5th 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. The Civil War had just ended, and he wanted a way to remember and honor those who had died. He stated: “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.” Out of 365 days, why May 30th? He chose this day because there was no recorded anniversary of any particular battle.
On the first Decoration Day (Memorial Day), General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873. By 1890, it was recognized by all of the northern states. The South, however, refused to acknowledge the day, honoring their dead on separate days until after World War I (when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war).
Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971 (yes, it took them that long, but that’s Congress for you). The National Holiday Act assigned the last Monday in May to be known as Memorial Day. This helped ensure a three day weekend for Federal holidays (because why not give Congress a break). Several southern states still have an additional separate day for honoring those who fought and died for the Confederate military: January 19th in Texas; April 26th in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10th in South Carolina; and June 3rd, which is Jefferson Davis’ birthday in Louisiana and Tennessee.
In December 2000 the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution was passed, which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to ‘Taps.”
Today I ask that we honor those who have given their lives in all American Wars.
- American Revolution (1775–1783): 4,435
- War of 1812 (1812–1815): 2,2,60
- Indian Wars (approx. 1817–1898): about 1,000
- Mexican War (1846–1848): 1,733
- Civil War (1861–1865): 496,332
- Spanish-American War (1898–1902): 2,446
- World War I: 116,516
- World War II: 405, 399
- Korea War: 33,686
- Vietnam War: 58, 209
- Gulf War: 1,948
- Iraq: 4,404
- Afghanistan: 1,086
And to all those unaccounted for or for those who did not make it in the count: You are not forgotten and we thank you!