Memorial Day, the most solemn American holiday, is a day of national awareness honoring Americans who have died while defending our Nation — the day set aside to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice — the day we must pause and consider the true meaning of this holiday.
The Civil War was the bloodiest war in American History where over 600,000 men were killed. Following that war, many people went to various war sites and cemeteries to memorialize their lost soldiers.
Waterloo, New York is officially honored with the start of Memorial Day. On May 5, 1866, this city closed stores and shops so folks could as a group lay flags and flowers on grave sites to honor their war dead.
General John A. Logan, head of a Union Veterans Association, led a national movement to honor all civil war losses, both Union and Confederate, on May 30 of each year. This day was to be called Decorations Day.
On May 30, 1868, the first Decorations Day was held at Arlington National Cemetery. Numerous civil war veterans, widows and even Presidents, present and past attended this celebration.
By the end of the century, Decorations Day was changed to Memorial Day and was accepted by all Union states and some Confederate states. Many Southern states felt this day honored Union losses over Confederate losses. These states had their own celebrations and even today, some Southern states honor Confederate losses separately.
In World War I, over 130,000 Americans were killed. These losses finally healed the Union/Confederate issues and Memorial Day was accepted nationally.
American losses have exceeded 519,000 in subsequent wars
- World War II 1941-1945 418,000
- Korean War 1950-1953 36,516
- Vietnam War 1955-1975 58,209
- Afghanistan 2001-present 2,031
- Iraq War 2003-2011 4,487
In 1971, Memorial Day was declared to be a Federal holiday. Every Memorial Day, either the President or Vice President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington.
Though seldom seen in recent years, red poppies were worn throughout the 20th century to commemorate Americans who died in wars from WW I forward.
Inspired by the poem “Flanders Field,” Moina Michael composed the following poem and conceived of the idea of wearing the poppies in their honor. In 1948, the U.S. Post Office honored her for her role in founding the National Poppy movement by issuing a red 3-cent postage stamp shown here.
We cherish too, the Poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led,
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.