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Decoration Day: A Historical Look At Memorial Day

by T. Hill

The Civil War. One of the bloodiest wars in America’s history, ended on April 9, 1865. Four years after its first battle at Ft. Sumter, SC, this war claimed more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history, with an estimated 620,000 men; 2% of the population during that time.

Following the Civil War, it became a tradition in most small towns around the US to host annual tributes or ceremonies in honor of lives lost during the war, a day called Decoration Day. Known today as Memorial Day, it continues to be a day of celebration and honor of fallen veterans, a concept actually dating back to ancient Greece and Rome in 431 B.C. Still today, there remains controversy over the origins of this holiday.

One of the earliest Memorial Day celebrations happened in Charleston, South Carolina by a group of freed slaves following a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. It happened on what had been a horse race track, where 257 Union Soldiers had died in the makeshift prison camp and were buried in a mass grave. 10,000 people attended this momentous memorial, including freed slaves and white missionaries and teachers. Known then as “The Martyrs of the Racecourse” cemetery, the graves were moved and reinstated as Hampton Park after Confederate General Wade Hampton.

The traditional Confederate Memorial Day originally began by the Ladies Memorial Association of Columbus, Georgia who invited Confederate states throughout the US to join in the celebration in the Spring of 1866. There are still a few states today who continue to commemorate those fallen soldiers on the 26th of April each year.

But it was in the Summer of 1865 when Henry C. Welles and General John B. Murray of Waterloo, NY began the declaration of an annual memorial ceremony in honor of fallen soldiers. 

Finally, in May of 1868, US House of Representative and leader of an organization for Civil War veterans, General John A. Logan, called for a nationwide day of remembrance. May 30th 1868 was then declared as Decoration Day, in honor of those fallen in defense of their country.

In 1966 the State of NY, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and the US Federal Government declared Waterloo, New York, the official birthplace of Decoration Day (Memorial Day).

Since this holiday was specific to veterans of the Civil War, Decoration Day was later changed in 1968 by Congress in order to honor fallen American soldiers of all historical wars. First celebrated in 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday and declared it as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.

Today, regardless of it’s origins or it’s meaning, the purpose behind Memorial Day/Decoration Day are one in the same. To honor those fallen soldiers. Cities and towns across the United States host Memorial Day parades, while families and friends visit cemeteries and memorials to decorate graves with flowers and decorations. Some post-WW1 traditions of wearing a red poppy flower are still seen in many communities. Unofficially, Memorial Day marks the first day of Summer for all Americans, beginning the season with a long weekend for travel, cookouts and summer festivities.

On a national level, the American flag is hung at half-staff until noon each Memorial Day and since the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2000, all Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time. 

As then California Governor Ronald Reagan proudly stated at his 1967 Inaugural Address “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.” 

May we never forget freedom isn’t free. 


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