Memorial Day is a celebrated American Federal holiday, observed on the last Monday of May. It’s a day of honoring the men and women who died while serving in all of America’s wars. Originally known as “Decoration Day”, from the early tradition of decorating wreaths, flowers, and flags, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971 after Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. The custom of laying flowers on burial sites to remember and honor those who gave their lives in military service goes back many decades before the national holiday was established.
Though Memorial Day’s origination is widely debated, it appears to have begun in the years following the Civil War in a variety of ways. One story is that on May 1, 1865, former slaves, in Charleston, South Carolina, honored 257 dead Union Soldiers who were buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp, by giving them a proper burial as a show of gratitude.
Shortly after this, Gen. John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30, 1868, a day to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. It is believed that this date was chosen because flowers would be in full bloom during this period all over the country. On that date, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 attendees helped to decorate the 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.
In May 1966, the city of Waterloo, New York, was designated as the Birthplace of Memorial Day via a Congressional resolution and presidential proclamation commemorating a patriotic observance held in that town a century before.
Traditionally, every year the President or Vice President of the United States or, in their absence, another high-ranking government official visits Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day to honor all Americans who have died in military service by participating in a symbolic wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Approximately five thousand people attend the ceremony annually.
The debate regarding exactly when and where the first observance of Memorial Day was held continues to this day. Regardless of when Decoration Day (or Memorial Day) may have been officially established, it is a beautiful and cherished holiday.