Remembering the History of Memorial Day

Source: Cyberscooty, 1993

Memorial Day, Monday, May 28, is not just the unofficial start of summer: it is a time to reflect upon those we have lost in times of war defending our country. There was not always a Memorial Day; it has gone through many incarnations.

May 30, 1868 (three years after the war had ended) had the first Decoration Day in the North after the Civil War to commemorate the fallen soldiers. This was one of the first instances of the start of Memorial Day, as we know it (Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, 2015). According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.” (2015). On that day General James Garfield made a speech in the cemetery and the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery were decorated by volunteers (Claybourn, 2014) His speech was short but poignant, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue” (PBS, 2018).


New York was the first state to officially acknowledge and recognize the holiday in 1873 and most of the North did so by about 1890. The South did not honor the day until after World War I. This was when the day changed from a Civil War recognition of soldiers to all soldiers (Claybourn, 2014). Several southern states honor a separate day, in addition to Memorial Day, to honor the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy: these are observed on January 19 in Texas; the third Monday in January in Arkansas; the fourth Monday in April in Alabama and Mississippi; April 26 in Florida and Georgia; May 10 in North and South Carolina; the last Monday in May in Virginia; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee (PBS, 2018).

Memorial Day was not an official United States holiday until 1971 when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act went into effect making the last Monday in May Memorial Day (, 2009). December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,”’ which encourages a moment of silence at 3 p.m. local time to remember those who have fallen in service (Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, 2015). The holiday traditions are parades, decorating of the soldiers’ graves, cookouts, and family gatherings, allowing those who participate to remember the fallen.

Claybourn, J. (2014). History. Retrieved from Memorial Day:

Cyberscooty. (1993, June 30). American Flag with Veteran memorial day [Digital image]. Retrieved May 18, 2018, from

History.Com. (2009). Memorial Day. Retrieved from

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. (2015, July 20). Memorial Day
History. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:

P. (2012, February 17). [Flowers Objects Symbols Flag Memorial Day]. Retrieved May 18, 2018, from

PBS. (2018). The History of Memorial Day. Retrieved from

Contributed by Heather Hilton, Bay Shore Librarian

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