The first recorded organized public recognition of the war dead occurred on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. On that day, Freedmen (freed southern slaves) celebrated the service of the 257 Union soldiers buried at the Washington Race Course (now Hampton Park). They labeled the gravesite “Martyrs of the Race Course.” African Americans continued that tradition and named the celebration Decoration Day.
Southern states began their own commemoration to honor their soldiers who died during the war. No specific date was used but occurred in late April through June. By 1880, there was a more organized Confederate Memorial Day. These celebrations honored specific soldiers to commemorate the Confederate “Lost Cause.” By 1913, a sense of nationalism saw a commemoration of all soldiers that have died in battle.
American Fighter Aces Bronze Medal
Memorial Day took on national significance following World War I when the nation began to recognize all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during all conflicts. By the end of World War II, most of the celebrations were renamed to Memorial Day. Memorial Day did not become an official holiday until 1967 with the passage of the Uniform Holidays Act (Public Law 90-363
, 5 U.S.C. § 6103(a)
) in 1968. Under the law, Memorial Day was set to the last Monday in May, changing it from the traditional May 30th.
The modern Memorial Day is a holiday celebrating the lives of those sacrificed in defense of the United States and its ideals at home and abroad. Today, we honor the memories of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that I can write this blog and you can read it.
Members of The Old Guard place American flags at headstones at Arlington National Cemetery during Flags-In on May 21, 2015.