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Memorial Day got its start honoring Civil War fatalities


By Tara Yilmaz

→ Did you know that Memorial Day was formerly known as Decoration Day?

General John A. Logan, leader of the Northern Civil War Veterans, rallied for a National Day of Remembrance. According to, the late general proclaimed, “The 30th of May 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

During the first Decoration Day on May 30, 1868, a ceremony took place at Arlington National Cemetery and 5,000 participants placed flowers and decorations on the graves of 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried in the historical cemetery. It was at this event when General James Garfield gave a speech that included the words: “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country, they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

→ Did you know The Civil War is the most fatal war in United States history? Even though the exact toll of lives lost is debated no one can disregard the estimates. cites the total number of deaths as 620,000, between roughly 360,000 Union deaths and 258,000 Confederate deaths. More recently in 2011, the estimates were revalued by demographic historian David J. Hacker, author of “A Census Based Count of the Civil War Dead.” He concluded the death toll was closer to 750,000, with a range from 650,000 to as many as 850,000 dead.

→ Did you know after World War I, Decoration Day gradually expanded to commemorate not just Civil War veterans, but all of the American military? As the U.S. then became entangled in other conflicts such as World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War, The Gulf War, Iraq War, and the 20-year war in Afghanistan, Memorial Day was established as a national holiday.

→ Did you know that only Americans call their day to honor service members Memorial Day? While many nations have their versions of honoring those in the armed forces, the title Memorial Day is reserved for Americans. In Australia, they have Remembrance Day, Germany has Volkstrauertag, and the Netherlands celebrates Dodenherdenking on May 4.

→ Did you know that Memorial Day has annual traditions? Americans often observe the solemn occasion with trips to cemeteries to place wreaths and flags on veterans’ graves or attend Memorial Day lecture events. While remembering and honoring those who sacrificed their lives, Americans also celebrate them, such as in the Memorial Day New Orleans Jazz Funeral. Long weekends, beach parties, backyard barbecues, parades and fireworks would not have been possible without the greatest sacrifice of all—the sacrifices given by the brave people in America’s military.

Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May, honoring all those who have died while serving in all branches of the U.S military. This year, Memorial Day occurs on Monday, May 30.


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