Sunday, May 29, 2022

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

The years following the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw American communities tending to the remains & graves of an unprecedented number of war dead. All of the previous wars & conflicts fought by the United States combined did not add up to the body count produced by the Civil War.

For more than a century, the ritual of visiting cemeteries, memorials & gravesites served as the popular start of summer. It was an annual act of remembrance, clearing away the dirt & grime from those hallowed markers. It was a time to decorate those personal memorials. Until 1971, Memorial Day was known as "Decoration Day."

On the 1st official Decoration Day -- May 30, 1868 -- future president James A. Garfield, a former general, addressed a crowd of 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery: "our children's children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day...assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union.

"Thousands of soldiers are to-day...visiting the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth today to join these solemn processions of loving kindred & friends."

After Garfield spoke, the 5,000 visitors made their way into the cemetery to visit the tens of thousands of graves in the newly formed Arlington cemetery.

But Decoration Day was not an official holiday. May 30 was a day seen by the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union Civil War veterans, as an official day of remembrance for people across the country. The idea was to honor the war's dead by decorating the graves of Union soldiers.

Local municipalities & states adopted resolutions over the following years to make Decoration Day an official holiday in their areas. Each of the former Union states had adopted a Decoration Day by 1890.

As time went on, "Memorial Day" began to supplant "Decoration Day" as the name of the holiday, & it became a day to honor all fallen American troops, not just Union soldiers from the Civil War. After the 2nd World War, Memorial Day was the term in more common usage, & the act of remembering all of America's fallen took on a renewed importance.

In 1968, the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which put major holidays on specific Mondays to give federal employees 3-day weekends. Memorial Day was one of these holidays. 

It all went into effect in 1971 &, by then, there were no more Civil War veterans - but there were decades of American vets from later wars.