Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day History

Memorial Day is an American holiday that is celebrated the last Monday of May. It honors men and women who died in service in the U.S. military. It was initially called Decoration Day and began in the years following the Civil War. It became an official holiday in 1971.

The Civil War took more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country'e first national cemetery. By the late 1860's many towns and cities throughout America held springtime tributes to their fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and saying prayers.

While it is difficult to attribute who originated the tradition in 1966, the federal government declared Waterloo, New York the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Waterloo was chosen because it was the first to hold community-wide events during which businesses closed and everyone participated in decorating the graves of soldiers.

In 1862, General John A. Logan, called for a national day of decorating the graves of those who fell during the Civil War since almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard claimed Civil War soldiers. In 1868, he requested May 30 as the date specifically because it wasn't the anniversary of any particular battle.

The first Decoration Day ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery. 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried there. Many Northern states held similar ceremonies and continued the new tradition each year. By 1890 Decoration Day was an official state holiday in almost every Northern state. Many Southern states continued to honor their dead on a separate date until World War 1 when the commemoration evolved into honoring all U.S. personnel who died in wars and Decoration Day became Memorial Day.

In 1915, inspired by the poem "InFlanders Fields," Moina Michael replied with her own poem: 
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

She originated the idea of wearing red poppies on Memorial day in honor of those who died serving the nation during war. She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later Madam Anna Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms.Michael and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries. 

In 1921, the Franco-American Children's League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The League disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW for help. Shortly before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW became the first veterans' organization to nationally sell poppies. Two years later their "Buddy" Poppy program was selling artificial poppies made by disabled veterans. In 1948 the US Post Office honored Ms Michael for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3 cent postage stamp with her likeness on it.

Copyright: Jemal Countess/Redux
Since the late 1950's on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a practice that continues to this day. More recently, beginning in 1998, on the Saturday before Memorial Day, the Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts place a candle at each of approximately 15,300 grave sites of soldiers buried at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park on Marye's Heights.
Today, cities and towns across the country commemorate the day. On a less somber note, the holiday weekend has become synonymous with parties, backyard barbeques, beach openings, and the unofficial beginning of summer.
Our town had a short remembrance at town hall and a parade where many of our town's soldiers and political officials proudly marched. There was lots of flag waving and an overwhelming feeling of pride. later today our main street will be closed for an outdoor fair. With the kids all doing their own thing this weekend, Paul and I are spending some quiet time at home. I'd like to sit on the deck (it is suppose to be 80 degrees here today) and catch up on my reading. How are you spending your Memorial Day?


  1. Great post, Ruth! We're spending a quiet day at home, too. But in years past, we spent the day doing ceremonies with our Civil War reenacting group at Indepedence Hall in Philadephia and at some of the gravesites of local Civil War heroes.

    I hope we never forget the true meaning of the day.

  2. Important history! Not all about the sales and the long weekend...thanks for posting this.

  3. Ruth,

    What an informative post! I never knew most of the details of how Memorial Day came to be. And I have always wondered why the vets sell Red Poppies!

    Thank you!
    Jenna Blue

  4. @Susan Macatee
    @Veronica Scott
    @ Anonymous (Jenna Blue)

    Thanks for stopping by. I know the holiday weekend can get crazy. I wanted to say something about Memorial Day and as a history buff looked into it a bit deeper. It was a fun research project and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Enjoy the rest of the week.