Although we commemorate Memorial Day each year, the holiday’s origins are rarely discussed. Many countries, especially those that were involved in World War II, have their own iteration of the monument to the soldiers who dedicated their lives to their country’s cause. From its earliest version as Decoration Day, Memorial Day has been a part of an important, reflective moment in the United States. Trace the history of the holiday from its earliest incarnation to the major occasion it is today with these little-known Memorial Day facts.
1. Memorial Day began as a day honoring Union soldiers killed during the Civil War.
After the end of the Civil War, General John A. Logan became the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans. Logan issued a General Order declaring May 30 as Memorial Day for fallen Union soldiers. For the first years of celebration, Memorial Day and Decoration Day were used interchangeably to refer to the day.
2. Some Southern states still have a separate day of remembrance for Confederate soldiers.
Not long after the Grand Army of the Republic established Memorial Day, Confederate groups organized to create their own commemorative holiday. Although a number of women’s groups, primarily the Ladies Memorial Association, had started to organize day outings to tidy graves and leave flowers, a larger movement began in 1868. By 1890, there was a specific focus on commemorating the Confederacy as well as the soldiers lost. Today, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina continue to celebrate a separate day for the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy.
3. The original date of ‘Decoration Day’ was May 30, chosen because it was not associated with any particular battle.
General Logan chose the date of the original Memorial Day with great care. May 30 was chosen precisely because no major battle occurred on that day. Afraid that choosing a date associated with a major battle like Gettysburg would be perceived as casting soldiers in that battle as more important than other comrades, May 30 was a neutral date that would honor all soldiers equally.
4. The tradition of red poppies honoring fallen soldiers comes from a Canadian poem written during WWI.
Although the wearing of red poppies to honor fallen soldiers is more popular in the United Kingdom and throughout the former British empire, poppies are also associated with Memorial Day in the United States. This tradition was started after Moina Michael, a young poet, was inspired by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. The opening lines read, “In Flanders field the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row”. The imagery moved Moina, and she decided to wear a red poppy as a symbol of her continued remembrance of those who fought in World War I.
5. The Vietnam War was responsible for Memorial Day becoming a national holiday.
Memorial Day was celebrated regularly across the United States from the mid-1800s on—while it nearly ceased in the early 20th century, the world wars made its commemoration important once more. Yet Memorial Day was not federally recognized until the height of the Vietnam War. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved a number of holidays to a Monday rather than their original day, including Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Veterans Day. In 1971, the Act took effect, making each holiday federally recognized and giving workers additional three-day weekend—in part thanks to the lobbying efforts of the travel industry.
6. Rolling Thunder, a nonprofit that brings attention to prisoners of war and those who remain missing in action, holds a rally every Memorial Day.
In 1987, a group of veterans visited the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. While there, they realized just how pervasive the issue of missing Vietnam soldiers was. The status of over 1,000 soldiers remains unknown to this day. In the ‘80s, as many as 2,700 soldiers’ fates were unknown. The men decided to organize a motorcycle rally the day before Memorial Day, hoping to create enough noise—both literal and figurative—that political groups would be forced to pay attention. Since the outset of their rally, an additional 1,100 unknown soldiers have been identified or discovered.
7. Although many towns claim to have been the birthplace of Memorial Day, Waterloo, New York is officially recognized as the first to commemorate the day.
General Logan may have made the first call for a national Memorial Day, but, as discussed earlier, it was far from the only day of remembrance. As early as 1866, people throughout the North and South gathered to memorialize fallen soldiers. Waterloo, New York was one of many towns to have a city-wide commemoration of those lost in the war. And while over two dozen towns and cities claim to be the first to have celebrated this day of remembrance, in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of Memorial Day—in part because it was the only town to have consistently memorialized the day since its inception.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons