U.S. Military History: Memorial Day

Ross Dunfee

The killing was over. The four-year-long Civil War officially ended at Appomattox, Va., April 9, 1865. There was a large division between the northern states (largely industrial) and the southern states (largely agrarian) over slavery, states’ rights, and westward expansion. The election of Lincoln was the last straw, and by one month after taking office, 10 states had seceded from the Union. Four years later, the blood of 700,000 killed and countless wounded servicemen stained the soil of a now united, but distraught, Union.

Immediately after the war, to honor those who had sacrificed and to begin the healing process, mourners decorated the soldiers’ graves with flowers. On May 5, 1868, General John Logan issued General Order No. 11, that May 30 be designated “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.” On the first “Decoration Day,” General James Garfield helped 5,000 participants decorate the graves at Arlington National Cemetery of 20,000 military killed in the Civil War.

For over 50 years, Decoration Day commemorated those killed in the Civil War, not for those Americans who died in all wars, and by 1890, all the states of the Union had adopted Decoration Day as a holiday. A new war, World War I, was about to change tradition. After World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, congressional pressure built to change Decoration Day to honor fallen soldiers from all wars. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 changed Decoration Day to Memorial Day and changed the date from May 30 to the last Monday in May. The date change created controversy amongst veterans’ groups who continue to encourage Congress to move the holiday back to May 30. Throughout the country, many states and cities began holding decoration celebrations, but on different dates.

Lynden Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the birthplace of Decoration/Memorial Day because of their early celebration (May 5, 1866) where the town had made Memorial Day an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags. Even today, several states still honor the fallen on dates other than the nationally-recognized Memorial Day.

Today, Memorial Day is celebrated throughout our country, but most notably at Arlington National Cemetery. It is customary for both the President and Vice-President to attend the solemn ceremony, give speeches honoring those who have sacrificed, and place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Small American flags adorn each of the gravesites. Some citizens simply see Memorial Day as the beginning of the summer vacation season, but it is designed for us to remember those who provided us the freedom to vacation.

Support Our Troops—Arizona is honored to present more than 350 flags along the principal roads in Robson Ranch to honor those who have died in military service protecting our freedoms. The black ribbon, placed above the flag until noon, represents half-staff. For questions about this article, contact Ross Dunfee at [email protected]. To learn more about SOT-AZ, contact Stephen Reeves, president, at [email protected].