For many Americans, Memorial Day is celebrated as the unofficial first day of summer. For those of us with ties to the military through our own service or the service of a loved one, whether past or present, the meaning is different—and poignant. Each year, Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May, providing the opportunity to honor the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.
Memorial Day has a long history, with its origins tied to the Civil War—a war that claimed more lives than any other conflict in U.S. history, leading to the establishment of the nation’s first military cemeteries. Women’s and religious organizations in various communities, on their own initiative, began honoring the fallen soldiers by decorating their graves.
In 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic, decided to formalize these activities. He designated May 30th as a nationwide day of remembrance and “strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”
Initially called Decoration Day, Logan chose May 30th specifically because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle. During its first observation in 1868, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.
The Evolution of a Tradition
While Memorial Day originally was tied directly to our Civil War soldiers, the tradition was expanded after World War I. The holiday has evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars, including World War II, The Vietnam War, The Korean War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The date of Memorial Day has also changed over the years. For decades, it was observed on May 30th. In 1968, however, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May. This law, which didn’t take effect until 1971, also declared Memorial Day as a federal holiday.
Observing Memorial Day
USBA is honoring the brave men and women who gave their life in service to our country with our Memorial Day 2021 eCard.
To create your own observation of Memorial Day, here are several ideas:
- Fly your American flag at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, then raise to full-staff.
- Pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time, a tradition in place since 2000, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation.
- Visit your local military or other cemetery and decorate with flags and flowers the graves of your loved ones who served.
- Purchase and wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those fallen in war. If you’re unfamiliar, this tradition began in 1915 during World War I, inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields.
USBA is a not-for-profit Association that provides group life insurance, health insurance supplements, and other products and services to military personnel, Federal employees, National Guard and Reserve members, Veterans and their families.