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Memorial Day: A Brief History

Begun as a way to honor America's Civil War dead, the holiday has only been recognized federally since 1971.

The origins of Memorial Day are shrouded in incomplete historical records and a North-South rift as old as the Civil War.

According to USMemorialDay.org, throughout the American South, decorating the graves of Confederate soldiers was a way of honoring the dead (as well as mourning the rebellion).

It caught on so much that by 1868, U.S. Gen. John Logan proclaimed a Memorial Day to be held at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Logan's remarks, with no small degree of flourish, formalized the practice of commemorating grave sites as a way of "preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers, sailors and Marines who united to suppress the late rebellion."

"Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms. We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance," he wrote

Perhaps that part about crushing tyrannous rebellion rankled Southerners, who didn't adopt the practice (called Memorial Day in all Northern states by the turn of the century) until after World War I, when the country collectively agreed to commemorate fallen veterans of both conflicts.

Memorial Day officially became a federal holiday by Congressional order in 1971, but as the site points out, observances can be spotty, short of baseball game flyovers and parades.

At the least, the Clinton White House requested in 2000, Americans should stop at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a voluntary moment of reflection, or to listen to "Taps," and consider the sacrifices of American service personnel and their families.

john q public May 28, 2012 at 07:42 PM
To most - it is just another reason to get drunk
Shirley May 29, 2012 at 07:26 PM
I was thinking of my father on the lead ship in the invasion of North Africa and two of my uncles, one a prisioner of war in Japan and the other a prisioner of war in Germany. All three returned home safely from WWII for which we were grateful. Other families were not so fortunate. Thank you Anthony and Matt for sharing the history of Memorial Day with us. Perhaps you could do the same for Veterans Day.

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