by Arman Deganian
President, DeKalb Bar Association
As we approach one of our nation’s most solemn holidays, I like to take the time to reflect on the history of Memorial Day, and how we came to recognize it as a national holiday. The name itself seems fairly obvious, but how it came to be is a bit more complicated than I knew.
Memorial Day was initially called Decoration Day. Decoration Day began unofficially soon after the end of the Civil War. It is unclear when the holiday actually came to be, but a traditional day of visiting fallen soldiers’ graves began after the Civil War. Many cities claimed to have originated the holiday, including Macon and Columbus, Georgia, but in 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson officially designated Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day considering that the first official Decoration Day took place in Waterloo on May 5, 1868.
A group of former Union soldiers initially requested the date to observe their fallen comrades. General John Logan deemed that the day should be 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.” General Logan initially wanted the holiday to be held annually on May 30, but a federal act in 1968 shifted it to the last Monday in May. It is believed that Logan wanted the holiday to fall on May 30 due to the fact flowers would be in bloom all over the country. Decoration Day became Memorial Day in 1967 and the federal act took effect in 1971.
. . . Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
Prior to World War I, the holiday only observed the fallen of the Civil War. After the Great War, the holiday was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. The origins of special services to honor those who die in American wars can be found in Athenian antiquity. The Greek historian Thucydides recorded Pericles’ tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War that could be similarly applied today to the 1.1 million Americans who have died in our nation’s wars: “Not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions, but there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”
In December 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance. The commission’s charter is to “encourage the people of the United States to give something back to their country, which provides them so much freedom and opportunity” by encouraging and coordinating commemorations in the United States for Memorial Day and the National Moment of Remembrance.