The holiday originated with tributes to soldiers who died during the Civil War.
Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday in May each year, is a holiday that honors American military personnel who have died in service to the United States.
But the holiday hasn’t always honored all fallen service members, and it hasn’t always been called Memorial Day.
Was Memorial Day originally called Decoration Day?
Yes, Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.
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WHAT WE FOUND
When the first national celebration of the modern Memorial Day holiday was held at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, the holiday was called Decoration Day.
The first Decoration Day celebration honored soldiers who died during the Civil War, the deadliest war in American history. The US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum said General John Logan, head of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance. He chose May 30 because it was not the anniversary of a Civil War battle.
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But tributes to soldiers lost in the Civil War were held across the country in the years leading up to the 1868 celebration. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says about 25 locations, including many in the South where the bulk of the dead to the war were buried, were linked to the origins of Memorial Day.
“Although the exact origin of this tradition is unclear,” states the US Army Airborne and Special Operations Museum, “some records indicate that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.”
The Library of Congress says the city of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims to have observed Memorial Day tributes even earlier based on a celebration dating back to October 1864.
The evolution of the holiday from Decoration Day to Memorial Day has been gradual, according to the Constitution Center. Congress recognized Decoration Day as a federal holiday in 1938. People began to refer to this holiday as Memorial Day after World War II, and the federal government adopted the name Memorial Day in 1967.
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President Lyndon Johnson has proclaimed Waterloo, New York, the “Birthplace of Memorial Day.” It was chosen because it hosted an annual community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated soldiers’ graves with flowers and flags, beginning May 5, 1866 .
The Constitution Center says the holiday was expanded to honor all American war dead after World War I. It became official, according to the Library of Congress, in 1971, when a federal law changed the observance of the holiday to the last Monday in May and extended the honoring of all soldiers who died in American wars.
Previously, the holiday was celebrated across the country on May 30 every year. Even after the 1971 law, a few states continued to observe the May 30 holiday.
In 2022, every state in the country will observe Memorial Day on May 30 — the date of the last Monday in May this year.
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