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When did Memorial Day start?

Happy Memorial Day. While it is the unofficial start to summer, and most are celebrating with barbecues and cold drinks, I hope we can remember what the day stands for... the ultimate sacrifice made by military men and women of the United States of America.

Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans, the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.

The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. After speeches, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and members of the GAR made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on both Union and Confederate graves, reciting prayers and singing hymns.

Local springtime tributes to the Civil War fallen had already been held in various places across the North and South. One of the first was in Columbus, Mississippi, April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers but also the graves of Union soldiers, originally neglected because they were "the enemy".

Today, cities in the North and the South claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day in 1866, though in 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. There, a ceremony on May 5, 1866, honored local veterans who had fought in the Civil War. Businesses closed and residents flew flags at half-staff. Supporters of Waterloo’s claim say earlier observances in other places were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events.

By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30th throughout the nation. State legislatures passed proclamations designating the observance day, and the Army and Navy adopted regulations for proper observance at their facilities as well.

It was not until after World War I that the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress, though it is still often called Decoration Day. It was then also placed on the last Monday in May, as were some other federal holidays.

The crowd of around 5,000 attending the first Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery is approximately the same size as those that attend today’s observance. Then, as now, small American flags were placed on each grave — a tradition followed at many national cemeteries. In recent years, the custom has grown in many families to decorate the graves of all departed loved ones.

To ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten, in December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. As Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada states: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”

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