The History of Memorial Day

Every year on the last Monday in May, the nation honors its armed forces and those who have sacrificed everything with the longstanding holiday of Memorial Day. But the origins of the holiday, as well as its intentions and ceremony, are not quite as simple as they seem on the surface.

Originally known as Decoration Day, the holiday can trace its origins to the Civil War, which claimed the lives of an estimated 1.5 million people, in and out of combat. While soldiers’ graves were decorated in the U.S. before and during the Civil War, the sheer number of casualties brought about by the conflict triggered many large-scale remembrances, ceremonies, parades and other memorials for the fallen. At least 25 different places in the US claim to have originated the holiday, mostly within the former Confederacy; the earliest forms were simple, somber ceremonies for veterans and families to honor the dead and tend to local cemeteries. Certain similar traditions existed in the North as well, notably Gettysburg, and became more widespread after Lincoln’s assassination, leading some to believe that Northerners had appropriated the holiday, though no one location in the country can claim to have created Memorial Day.

Officially, in 1868, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic called for a “Decoration Day,” which was widely observed; by 1890, every northern state had adopted it as a holiday. While initially dedicated solely to the dead of the Civil War, it eventually expanded, especially after the World Wars, to honor all American lives lost in military service. Though the name “Memorial Day” was first attested in 1882, it gradually became more common after World War II and was officially renamed as such in 1967. The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved four holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a three-day weekend. This change would move Memorial Day from its traditional date, May 30, to the last Monday in May.

An important distinction exists between Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and other similar holidays. Memorial Day was, traditionally, strictly intended to honor the dead, whereas Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, specifically honors those currently serving in the U.S. military. Veterans Day (previously called Armistice Day) was established to honor the American military casualties of World War I but was gradually expanded to encompass all servicemen/women, living or dead, and honor their service. Patriot Day specifically honors those killed in the September 11 attacks.

Traditionally, as a holiday to honor the dead, the custom most associated with Memorial Day is decorating the graves of veterans with flowers, flags, etc. The poppy came to be associated with the holiday during and after World War I; in 1915, Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” the first lines of which refer to poppies growing among soldiers’ graves. In 1918, inspired by the poem, a YWCA worker named Moina Michael attended a war secretaries’ conference wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed more to others in attendance. In 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as an official symbol of remembrance.

Several locations also hold Memorial Day parades, often accompanied by marching bands and cemetery decorations. Doylestown, Pennsylvania and Grafton, West Virginia, both claim to hold the nation’s oldest continually running parade, having started in 1868, though the Memorial Day parade of Rochester, Wisconsin, predates them both by one year.

Often associated with military funerals, and by extension with Memorial Day, is the bugle call known as “Taps.” Also known as “Day Is Done” for its use as a “lights-out” signal in camps or “Butterfield’s Lullaby” after its composer, Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Taps began being played for military funerals in July 1862, and had become a standard component of them by 1891. The name is thought to derive from two potential sources: either referring to three single, slow drumbeats struck as a lights-out signal, or from the Dutch taptoe, a signal that prompted the end of the day, the closing of the beer taps, and sending the soldiers back to camp for the night. The word taptoe would give rise to the name “Tattoo” for the bugle call that preceded Taps in the lights-out signal, from which its musical arrangement would also be derived. The term was later extended into “military tattoos,” which refer to performances of music by armed forces bands, or displays of the armed forces in general, such as military parades; the word has no connection to ink tattoos whatsoever.


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