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History of Memorial Day and Remembrance of Those Who Never Made It Home

One of the earliest commemorations for soldiers killed during the Civil War was organized by recently freed slaves. On May 1st, 1865, more than 1,000 people recently freed from enslavement gathered in the infamous Charleston Race Track prison camp to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union soldiers who died there.


The recently freed slaves were accompanied by regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (including the Massachusetts 54th Infantry) and a handful of white Charlestonians. The group sang hymns, gave readings, and distributed flowers around the cemetery.

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 war dead with flowers.


Major General John A. Logan issued a decree that May 30th should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. It is believed the date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.


On that first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington Cemetery while General James Garfield made a historic speech.


Decoration Day, renamed Memorial Day in 1968, originally honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. This changed after World War I, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Memorial Day didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971, more than a century after General Logan’s decree.


The meaning of Memorial day and its history wouldn't be complete without the birth of the “National Moment of Remembrance”, which was a resolution passed in Dec 2000 which asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a Moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to Taps.”

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