How 'Decoration Day' Became Memorial Day

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(Library of Congress)

Every year, Americans come together on the last Monday in May to remember our fallen service members. But the timing, traditions and even what we call the holiday are all relatively new.

For younger generations, Memorial Day is the official start of summer, kicked off with a large parade and a celebration of the men and women who gave their lives so we could have the freedom to enjoy our own.

As children get older, they begin to focus less on the three-day weekend and grilling burgers at a picnic and notice that their older relatives and neighbors aren't just headed to the pool or making lemonade -- they spend the weekend visiting cemeteries.

Memorial Day, as we know, is far from a macabre or morbid tradition. For more than a century, the ritual of visiting cemeteries, memorials and gravesites was the real start of summer. It was an annual act of remembrance, clearing away the dirt and grime from those hallowed markers. It's a time to decorate those personal memorials.

Until 1971, it was known as "Decoration Day."

The years following the end of the Civil War in 1865 saw American communities tending to the remains and graves of an unprecedented number of war dead. All of the previous wars and conflicts fought by the United States combined would still not add up to the body count produced by the Civil War.

On the first official Decoration Day -- May 30, 1868 -- Ohio Rep. James A. Garfield, a former general and future U.S. president, addressed a crowd of 5,000 gathered at Arlington National Cemetery:

"Hither our children's children shall come to pay their tribute of grateful homage. For this are we met to-day. By the happy suggestion of a great society, assemblies like this are gathering at this hour in every State in the Union.

Thousands of soldiers are to-day turning aside in the march of life to visit the silent encampments of dead comrades who once fought by their side. From many thousand homes, whose light was put out when a soldier fell, there go forth to-day to join these solemn processions loving kindred and friends, from whose heart the shadow of grief will never be lifted till the light of the eternal world dawns upon them."

After Garfield spoke, the 5,000 visitors made their way into the cemetery to visit the tens of thousands of graves in the newly formed cemetery.

A woman visits the grave of a fallen loved one in Upstate New York on Decoration Day. (Library of Congress)

But Decoration Day was not an official holiday. May 30 was a day touted by the Grand Army of the Republic, an association of Union Civil War veterans, as an official day of remembrance for people across the country. The idea was to honor the war's dead by decorating the graves of Union soldiers.

Local municipalities and states adopted resolutions over the following years to make Decoration Day an official holiday in their areas. Each of the former Union states had adopted a Decoration Day by 1890.

As time went on, "Memorial Day" began to supplant "Decoration Day" as the name of the holiday, and it soon became a day to honor all fallen American troops, not just those from the Civil War. After the two World Wars, Memorial Day was the term in more common usage, and the act of remembering all of the fallen took on a renewed importance.

In 1968, the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which put major holidays on specific Mondays to give federal employees three-day weekends. Memorial Day

was one of these holidays, along with Washington's Birthday, Labor Day and Columbus Day. The act also codified the name "Memorial Day" into law.

It all went into effect in 1971 and, by then, there were no more Civil War veterans -- but there were millions of vets from later wars.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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