Memorial Day is sometimes referred to as the start of the summer vacation season, a warmup act — pun intended — for the summer months.

Though it is now a federal holiday also observed at the state and local levels of government as well, and though it is now part of a long weekend that often includes road trips and outings on the beach or other waterways, the holiday was originally established as a somber occasion. For most Americans in prior times, Memorial Day was a time of quiet reflection on the high cost of liberty in their country, a cost paid in blood that soaked domestic and foreign soil.

The first Memorial Day observance, according to standard histories, took place May 5, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War, in Waterloo, New York. Waterloo, New York, is generally credited with starting what we now call Memorial Day, as businesses in the town closed and people went to local cemeteries to decorate the graves of soldiers.

More recently, however, information has come to light showing the first such holiday observance may have been in Charleston, South Carolina, where newly freed slaves gathered to honor fallen Union troops whose sacrifice had resulted in their liberation.

That occasion, as described in an article by The History Channel, occurred in the spring of 1865, less than a month after the war’s end and a year before the Waterloo observance. The revelation of this seemingly heretofore generally unknown event in Charleston, came from David Blight, a Yale University professor of American history. Blight discovered in a Harvard University archive written and printed accounts of the Charleston observance of respect for the Union war dead.

As the war had dragged on, a horse-race track in Charleston became a Confederate prison camp for captured Northern soldiers. More than 200 prisoners of war died there from privations of the war, and they were hastily buried. After the Confederate Army withdrew from the city, the article noted, the former slaves “exhumed the mass grave and reinterred the bodies with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: ‘Martyrs of the Race Course.’”

In any event, other cities and towns in the North followed Waterloo’s example.

On May 5, 1868, Gen. John Logan, the leader of a veterans organization known as the Grand Army of the Republic, urged people across the country to set aside May 30 of that year as a time to remember the Union soldiers killed in the war and to decorate their graves with flowers. The occasion thus became known as Decoration Day. The name and the date stuck fast as a new American tradition, beginning in the Northern states and spreading across the country as time went on. Southern states, however, were slow to embrace the May 30 holiday, preferring to remember the Confederate war dead on different days.

Incidentally, the epicenter of that first national observance of Decoration Day, in 1868, was Arlington National Cemetery, where soldiers of both sides of the Civil War were buried.

For the next half-century, Decoration Day was known as a time to remember, exclusively, the fallen Union warriors.

However, after the Great War, also known as the World War and later known as World War I, May 30 in the United States became known as Memorial Day, a federal holiday to honor all U.S. military personnel killed in the line of duty.

May 30 remained the date of Memorial Day until 1971. That year, as a result of a Monday-holiday bill passed by the Congress in 1968, Memorial Day was moved to the last Monday in May. The idea behind the law was to give federal employees and others a three-day holiday weekend.

Over the decades, Memorial Day has become a time for celebrating the beginning of the summer, and the day has become highly commercialized as a time for selling cars, boats, outdoor grills, and other warm-weather goods. Many people do, however, take time to visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried, and they may attend a holiday program replete with the somber ceremonies that include prayers, flag placements, speeches of tribute to the fallen, gun salutes, and bugles or trumpets sounding taps.

For the past two decades, the day has become quite special to war-weary Americans for whom the memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still quite fresh and painful. Even the Vietnam War — which ended for the U.S. 50 years ago this year — is still recent for many in the graying generation.


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