Honoring Our Country's Heroes

21 May 2014

Submitted by Anne Moeller, Director of Communications for the YMCA of South Hampton Roads

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer with outdoor pools opening, family and friends barbequing, retailers offering fantastic sales, and many of us enjoying a three-day weekend. But we must not forget that Memorial Day came about because of the ultimate sacrifice that so many before us have made. As you celebrate with your family and friends this weekend, strike up a conversation about the origins of Memorial Day. In doing so, you will keep the meaning of the holiday in mind, and you might even learn something you didn’t know!

  • The exact origins of Memorial Day (formerly known as Decoration Day) are disputed, with at least five towns claiming to have given birth to the holiday sometime near the end of the Civil War. These towns include Boalsburg, PA, Waterloo, NY, Charleston, SC, Carondale, IL, and Columbia, MS.
  • In 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the grand Army of the Republic issued what was called General Order Number 11, designating May 30 as a memorial day. He declared it to be "for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."
  • At the onset, Memorial Day was so closely linked with the Union cause that many Southern states refused to celebrate it. They consented only after World War I, when the holiday was expanded beyond honoring fallen Civil War soldiers to recognizing Americans who died fighting in all wars. It was also at this time that it was renamed Memorial Day.
  • Since the 1950s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division have placed American flags at each of the more than 300,000 graves in Arlington National Cemetery. During the weekend, they patrol around the clock to make sure each flag remains aloft.
  • In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.
  • With the National Holiday Act of 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. But critics say guaranteeing that the holiday is part of a three-day weekend promotes relaxation instead of stressing the holiday's true meaning. In 1989, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii introduced a bill to move the holiday back to the fixed date of May 30. He reintroduced it in every Congress, with no success, until his death in 2012.
  • In December of 2000, to ensure the sacrifices of America’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. This act encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”