Honoring Our Fallen Soldiers: Why America Celebrates Memorial Day

Filed in American Culture by on May 26, 2017 0 Comments
Photo by Ian Sane.

Photo by Ian Sane.

Americans will observe Memorial Day this year on May 29, often using the time to gather with family and welcome the summer months. However, it’s best to not lose sight of the meaning behind this federal holiday.

Originally called Decoration Day, based on the centuries-old tradition of adorning the graves of fallen soldiers with flags, wreaths, and flowers, Memorial Day is a time of remembrance for those who have died in service to the United States. While the exact origins of the holiday are unknown—over 12 cities claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day—it was first widely observed on May 30, 1868 to honor the soldiers lost in the Civil War. This particular date was chosen because it did not fall on the anniversary of any Civil War battle.

The first nationwide celebration occurred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia by declaration of General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, during which 5,000 volunteers decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried on the grounds.

Former Union General James Garfield famously gave a speech during this ceremony, declaring: “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.”

This ceremony has continued as a regular tradition among presidents and vice presidents, who often visit Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day to lay a wreath along the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. During his final Memorial Day in office, President Obama honored the fallen soldiers at this ceremony, saying “Whether they stood up in times of war, signed up in times of peace, or were called up by a draft board, they embodied the best of America.”

How will you be honoring Memorial Day this year? Share in the comments below.