5 things you may not have known about Memorial Day

Originally known as Decoration Day.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After the American Civil War, a battered America was faced with the task of burying and honoring thousands of soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy who had died in the bloodiest military conflict in American history.

1. Memorial Day and its traditions may have ancient roots.

While the first Memorial Day commemorative events were not held in the United States until the late 19th century, The practice of honoring those who have fallen in battle dates back thousands of years.

The ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated annual days of remembrance for their loved ones (including soldiers) each year, adorning their graves with flowers and holding festivals and public holidays in their honor.

One of the earliest known public tributes to the war dead was in 431 BC. C., when the Athenian general and statesman Pericles delivered a funeral oration praising the sacrifice and valor of those killed in the Peloponnesian War, a speech some have compared in tone to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

2. One of the first commemorations was organized by newly freed African Americans.

As the Civil War drew to a close, thousands of Union soldiers, held as prisoners of war, were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in Charleston, South Carolina.

Conditions in one field were so bad that over 250 prisoners died of disease or exposure and were buried in a mass grave behind the track grandstand.

Three weeks after the Confederate surrender, Charlestonians gathered at the camp to consecrate a new and proper burial place for the Union dead. The group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery, which they dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Hippodrome”.

3. The ‘founder’ of the holiday had a long and distinguished career.

In May 1868General John A. Logancommander-in-chief of the Union veterans group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree for May 30 to become a national day of commemoration of the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War just ended.

According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that did not coincide with the anniversary of a Civil War battle, although some historians believe that the date was selected to ensure that flowers throughout the country would be in full bloom.

After the war, Logan, who had served as a US Congressman before resigning to rejoin the military, returned to his political career, eventually serving in both the House and Senate and was the Republican nominee for President. unsuccessful vice presidency in 1884.

4. It didn’t become a federal holiday until 1971.

Americans adopted the notion of “Decoration day” right away. That first year, more than 27 states held some type of ceremony, with more than 5,000 people in attendance for a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

By 1890, every old state in the Union had adopted it as an official holiday, but for more than 50 years, the holiday was used to commemorate those killed only in the Civil War, not in any other American conflict.

It was not until the entry of the United States into World War I that the tradition was expanded to include those killed in all wars.and Memorial Day was not officially recognized across the country until the 1970s, with the United States deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War.

5. It was a long way from Decoration Day to an official Memorial Day.

Although the term Memorial Day was used beginning in the 1880s, andhe holiday was officially known as Decoration Day for more than a century, when it was modified by federal law.

Four years later, the Uniform Holiday Monday Act of 1968 finally went into effect, moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance of May 30 to a fixed day: the last Monday in May.

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