Memorial Day is the day we remember those who died in military service to our country. But do you know what war precipitated this national holiday? Surprisingly (at least to me), it was the Civil War. By proclamation of General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of former Union sailors and soldiers, Memorial Day was first widely observed 150 years ago – on May 30, 1868, to be exact – to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. Five years later in 1873, New York became the first state to designate Memorial Day as a legal holiday. By the late 1800s, many more U.S. cities and communities were observing Memorial Day, with several states joining New York in declaring it a legal holiday. After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars, and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the country.
In light of this history, my above image – depicting Civil War soldiers carrying flags and rifles as they march in profile – seems fitting. This bronze sculpture is one of two large bas-relief panels on the base of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, which is located west of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. This impressive memorial (see the left foreground of the image below) marks the eastern terminus of the National Mall and faces the Lincoln Memorial almost two miles to the west. It’s the largest equestrian monument in the country, measuring 252 feet long by 71 feet wide and 44 feet high.
Here are some other interesting facts about Memorial Day:
- It was originally called Decoration Day from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags.
- The holiday was originally held on May 30 from 1868 to 1970. In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act establishing that Memorial Day should be commemorated on the last Monday of May.
- Memorial Day should be distinguished from Veterans Day (November 11), which celebrates the service of all military veterans, and from Armed Forces Day (third Saturday in May), which specifically honors those currently serving in the U.S. military.
I spent part of my Memorial Day attending a Seattle Mariners baseball game at Safeco Field. Before the traditional seventh-inning stretch, the P.A. announcer asked the crowd for a moment of silence to commemorate the holiday. I am pleased to report that every single fan obliged.
Ciao for now!
Andrew (“Andy”) Bergh