Depending on who you ask, Memorial Day can seem to be about many different things. To some, it’s the unofficial start of summer – a chance to go to the beach, cook out and enjoy a long weekend. To others, it’s about honoring military personnel and veterans. And while the latter is more accurate than the former, it’s still not precisely correct.
Memorial Day is observed specifically to remember those who gave their lives during military service. While thanking all past and present servicemembers is certainly commendable, there are actually separate holidays for doing so: Veterans Day (Nov. 11) is set aside to honor veterans, and Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May) recognizes active-duty personnel.
So if Memorial Day is about commemorating those who died while serving, how did it start? How did it get its unique identity?
The Civil War and Decoration Day
In the wake of the Civil War, which cost more than 600,000 American lives, many people felt the need to remember those who had sacrificed so much. Decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers had been a long-standing custom, and a few years after the war groups began organizing to do so regularly.
At first, these “Decoration Days” were local affairs that took place at various times. From 1861 to 1864 events were held in locations such as Warrenton, Va., Savannah, Ga., and Boalsburg, Pa. In 1865, a large group of black residents in Charleston, S.C., organized a ceremony for Union prisoners of war who had died at the Hampton Park Race Course and were buried in unmarked graves. They landscaped the burial ground, built a memorial and laid flowers for the “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
By the end of that year, decorating the graves of Civil War dead had become more common and formalized. Southern states started official Decoration Day observances in 1866 and northern states followed suit in 1868, but they were still celebrated at different times in different areas. May 30 eventually became the most commonly accepted date, but variations persisted well into the 20th century.
After World War I, as Americans found themselves with tens of thousands more war dead to mourn, Decoration Day observances were expanded to include all of those who died while serving.
Modern Observance of Memorial Day
In 1967, the name of the holiday was officially changed to Memorial Day. Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act the following year, moving Memorial Day to the last Monday in May throughout the United States.
Today, Memorial Day often has a recreational atmosphere – many people attend cookouts, parades, outdoor concerts and similar events. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a long weekend, it is important to keep the day’s true meaning in mind. To this end, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act in 2000. It urges all Americans to stop whatever they’re doing at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day and take a few moments to recognize the sacrifice of those who died while serving.
New England College Remembers
Founded in 1946 to provide higher education to veterans returning from World War II, New England College has always fostered a close relationship with those who serve in America’s armed forces. In solemn remembrance of Memorial Day, NEC salutes all the men and women who gave their lives to defend this nation.