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Memorial Day – A Brief History

history of memorial day

With Memorial Day 2019 just around the corner, and in honor of the fallen military heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect us, this post will offer a brief history of the origins of Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is officially a federal holiday in the United States. Its purpose is to remember and honor those who died while serving in the United States Military. It is observed every year on the last Monday in the month of May, and is considered the unofficial start of summer vacation in the United States.

Memorial Day History

There exists quite a bit of controversy regarding the origins of Memorial Day. In fact, its history is so unclear that this topic constitutes an area of research. For example, Columbus State University in Georgia has a Center for Memorial Day Research.

The custom of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers on an annual basis in the United States dates back to prior to the American Civil War, possibly reflecting the origin of the Memorial Day concept. Post-Civil War, both the North and the South began parallel customs from decorating the graves to honor fallen soldiers. As far back as 1866 various ceremonies were initiated by organizations such as the Ladies Memorial Association and the United Daughters of the Confederacy which would occur on different dates ranging from April 25 to mid-June.

The Role of Gettysburg National Park in the History of Memorial Day

Ceremonies in Gettysburg National Park began to take place starting in 1868 and in July of 1913, veterans of the United States and Confederate armies gathered in Gettysburg to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As the Gettysburg Cemetery dedication occurred on November 19th, that day (or the closest weekend) has been designated as Remembrance Day in honor of those who have their lives in that historic battle.

memorial day

The Evolution of Memorial Day in the 20th Century

From the latter part of the 19th Century into the 20th Century, the topic of how to properly observe Memorial Day became somewhat controversial. At this time, there was much debate regarding whether the observance should remain somber or if it should be more celebratory in spirit.

In Indiana in particular, one Hoosier veteran complained that younger people born since the war had a “tendency … to forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears”. This veteran was likely referring to the popularity of races, games, and other celebrations that had become increasingly popular.

Though the observance never ceased to be a time for celebration with the most common type being popular retail sales, measures have been adopted to retain the somber tone of the observance with some success. For example, in 2000 Congress enacted National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to stop and remember at 3pm on Memorial Day. It is also customary for the flag of the United States to be initially raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains until noon, after which it is raised to full staff for the remainder of the day. Other ways in which the observance has retained a more somber tone is via the National Memorial Day Concert which takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol and through parades which take place throughout the United States.

Memorial Day in Music

One of the most moving depictions of Memorial Day comes to us in the form of the Charles Ives symphonic poem Decoration Day, which is a musical depiction of the observance as Ives experienced it in his childhood. In this moving musical work, we hear the sound of his father’s band leading the way to the town cemetery, the playing of Taps on a trumpet, and a livelier march tune on the way back to the town.

As words cannot possibly express our gratitude for the sacrifices our fallen veterans (and all veterans) have made for us, we hope you will take a moment to listen to The President’s Own US Marine Band perform the march Defenders of Freedom, which was composed by US Marine Band veteran Kenneth Douse.

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