Archived Story

How Memorial Day came to be

Published 2:03pm Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May. It originated after the Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the war.
Southern ladies organizations and southern schoolchildren had decorated Confederate graves in Richmond and other cities during the Civil War, but each region had its own date, and most dates were in May.
By the 20th century, Memorial Day became a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United Armed Forces. By the end of the 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the military or not.
Gen. John A. Logan, who helped bring attention to the event nationwide, was likely a factor in the holiday’s growth. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic — the organization for Northern Civil War veterans —Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.
Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890, every northern state followed suit.
By 1870, the remains of nearly 300,000 Union dead had been reinterred in 73 national cemeteries, located near the battlefields and therefore mostly in the South. The most famous are Gettysburg National Cemetery in Pennsylvania and Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington.
The preferred name for the holiday gradually changed from “Decoration Day” to “Memorial Day,” which was first used in 1882. It did not become more common until after World War II, and was not declared the official name by federal law until 1967.
On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, which moved four holidays, including Memorial Day, from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May.
The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War now advocate returning to the original date.
Since 1987, Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, has introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date.
After some initial confusion and unwillingness to comply, all 50 states adopted Congress’s change of date within a few years. Memorial Day endures as a holiday that most businesses observe because it marks the unofficial beginning of summer.
Many people observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of silent remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time.
For many years, the Memorial Day parade has been the main event in Edwardsburg. Of course, it was originally on Decoration Day May 30.
Many will remember the parade always starting from the school with the school band, marching units, tractors, horses and decorated bicycles. The parade went on to the cemetery where a Memorial Day remembrance was held.
After the units became so big and the driveway to the cemetery so narrow, the big units turned off Hamilton Street and returned to U.S. 12 by way of Jefferson Street.
After the festivities at the cemetery all returned to the American Legion Hall on Lake Street and U.S. 12 for a free ice-cream treat.
Somewhere along the way, the day has turned into a day of celebration and not the day of remembrance it was meant to be. It has become a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 auto race, held since 1911 on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
Inscribed on the monument at the Edwardsburg Museum is this statement, “Lest we not forget.” Let’s take a moment on Monday to remember the real purpose of the day.

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  • pcinc


    I am a Past Michigan Department and Past National Commander-in-Chief of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. I am writing to thank you for a well-written and accurate account of Memorial Day. Yes, we as an organization have been actively trying to get Memorial Day observance back to its originally established May 30th. It has been and remains an uphill fight. We participate in numerous commemorations, programs, parades, etc. all over the country, and while there certainly are some people who recognize the meaning of Memorial Day (or now Weekend), we have seen firsthand that it is a very small portion of the population. The three-day weekend has greatly reduced the significance of the date. Thank you for your Memorial Day piece. PS. I maintain my connection to the area via the Vigilant. I am a native and former resident of Cassopolis, and a 1968 graduate of Cassopolis High School.

    Keith G. Harrison
    Past National Commander-in-Chief,
    Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
    Past National Commander-in-Chief,
    Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the US

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