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Why Do We Observe Memorial Day?

By Andrew Hollandbeck

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was first proclaimed by General John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), on May 5, 1868, and was first observed on May 30 of the same year. May 30 was chosen in part because it was not the anniversary of a Civil War battle and because flowers would likely be in bloom all over the United States. General Logan hoped that remembrance of those soldiers who had died during the recently ended Civil War could help bring all Americans back together.

On the first observation of Decoration Day, flowers were placed on the graves of all Civil War dead — both Union and Confederate — in Arlington National Cemetery. Placing flowers or flags on soldiers' graves has been a Memorial Day tradition ever since.

In 1873, New York became the first state to officially recognize Decoration Day. Other Northern states followed suit so that, by 1890, they all recognized the holiday. Some Southern states had created their own holidays to remember the Confederate fallen and didn't recognize Decoration Day.

After World War I, Decoration Day, which was increasingly being called Memorial Day, became a time to honor all American soldiers who died in service to the people of the United States. With this shift away from the Civil War, southern states began to officially recognize Memorial Day, although some retained (and still do) their own Civil War remembrance days.

Memorial Day became a federal holiday when Congress passed the National Holiday Act of 1971, which also moved the holiday from May 30 to the last Monday in May, ensuring a three-day weekend for federal employees. The National Holiday Act also established the name of the holiday as Memorial Day.

The two most common ways in which Memorial Day is observed are parades and placing flowers or flags on the graves of fallen soldiers. In fact, the soldiers of the Third U.S. Infantry have, since the late 1950s, placed small U.S. flags on the over one-quarter-million graves in Arlington National Cemetery on the Thursday before Memorial Day.

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In May 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a resolution calling for a "National Moment of Remembrance" on Memorial Day. The resolution urges all Americans "to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all."

Over the last decade, as more soldiers have given their time, their skills, and their lives overseas, the spirit and meaning of Memorial Day have taken on greater significance to many Americans.

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