For many Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. The holiday delivers a three-day weekend to many and is filled with BBQs, beaches, beer, and backyard parties shared with family and close friends. However, Memorial Day is more than just a time to hang out with family and friends. It’s also a time to celebrate the men and women who perished protecting the United States of America.

The earliest Memorial Day celebrations were dedicated solely to the memory of Americans who perished during the Civil War. Approximately, 620,000 deaths occurred at this time, making it the deadliest war in American history. Today, Memorial Day celebrates all who have lost their life defending America.

The Civil War was the Deadliest Battle in History

During the Civil War about 620,000 Americans died. The Union lost the most troops with estimates as high as 365,000 deaths. The Confederacy had their share of loss as well with deaths estimated at 260,000. It is important to remember disease caused at least half of these deaths. To keep the loss in perspective, we’ve compiled a list of other battle, war, and conflict deaths.

  • WWI – 116,516 American deaths (about ½ from disease)
  • WWII – 405,399 American deaths
  • Korean War – 36,574 American deaths
  • Vietnam Conflict – 58,220 American deaths (47,000 died in action and 11,000 from other causes)
  • Operation Desert Shield aka Desert Storm – about 300 (including 145 non-battle deaths)
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom – 4,400 Americans

Decoration Day Lead to Memorial Day

Shortly after the Civil War, Decoration Day was established to honor military personnel that died from 1861 to 1865. On Decoration Day, May 30th, people everywhere would visit cemeteries and decorate the graves of veterans. It is believed that May 30th was chosen as the day of remembrance because most flowers would be in bloom.

Others believe May 30th was selected as Memorial Day because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle.  On the first Decoration Day, James Garfield made a speech at the Arlington National Cemetery. At this time, 5,000 participants decorated graves of over 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. What was once known as Decoration Day later became Memorial Day.

Memorial Day was Celebrated for Generations before Being Recognized as a National Holiday

Memorial Day was unofficially celebrated in many communities before it was acknowledged as a national holiday. It was finally recognized as a holiday in 1971. At this time, the federal government decided Memorial Day would forever be known on the last Monday in May.

Many cities and states claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, but only one community was recognized by President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnston declared Memorial Day was created in Waterloo, New York. Waterloo first celebrated the holiday in May 1866.

The first recognized Memorial Day was celebrated in Arlington National Cemetery. It’s estimated that nearly 5,000 people attended the service. In recent years, the crowd that attends the Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery is also about 5,000 people.

National Moment of Remembrance Act

In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed The National Moment of Remembrance Act. This law encourages everywhere to stop what they are doing at 3 pm on Memorial Day. During the one minute moment of silence, Americans are invited to think about those who have died serving the nation.

Red Poppies and Memorial Day

In 1915, a poem, “In Flanders Fields,” inspired Moina Michael to do something to remember the Americans that died during the Civil War. Michael decided to wear red poppies on Memorial Day. To Michael, the red poppy flower became a symbol of the blood of the heroes that died serving the nation. Eventually, Michael began to sell poppies to her friends and family to wear with her on the day of remembrance.

All money collected from the sale of red poppies was donated to servicemen and families in need. Soon Michael’s movement spread across the country, and the tradition still continues today. Each year, people all over the country wear red poppies on Memorial Day to honor and remember those that died in a war.

More than One Memorial Day?

Memorial Day was created with the intent to honor Union soldiers. But, some states have Confederate observances. Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, but not on the same day as Memorial Day. Below is a list of Southern states that celebrate Confederate Memorial Day and their respective dates.

  • Alabama – the 4th Monday of April
  • Georgia – April 26th
  • North and South Carolina – May 10th
  • Louisiana – June 3rd
  • Tennessee – June 3rd (In Tennessee, the day is called Confederate Decoration Day)
  • Texas – January 19th (It’s referred to as Confederate Heroes Day)
  • Virginia – last Monday in May

Whether you attend the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery or just acknowledge the minute of silence, it’s important to remember Memorial Day. It isn’t just about an extra day off or backyard barbecues; it’s a day to remember those that fought for our liberties and recognizing the sacrifices they made for the ultimate good.