20 facts Americans might not know about Memorial Day

Americans mark Memorial Day in a variety of ways, some celebrating freedom at the beach or a barbecue and others, more solemnly, placing flowers on loved ones’ graves.

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Though most people in the U.S. undoubtedly know when Memorial Day takes place — the last Monday of May — not all understand the “why.” For those who are confused by the origins of the holiday, here are 20 facts about the unofficial start of summer that you might not know.

  1. Memorial Day began in the years following the brutal Civil War, which killed so many soldiers that it required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.
  2. According to History.com, Americans had begun by the late 1860s to hold springtime memorials for the fallen soldiers, during which they would decorate their graves and pray.
  3. The physical origin of Memorial Day remains unclear. Some records indicate the earliest event was organized by former slaves in Charleston in 1865, just weeks after the end of the war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
  4. According to Time, the ceremony and parade was held at the site of a former racetrack, where about 260 Union soldiers had been buried in a mass grave.
  5. The organizers reburied the soldiers individually and honored them by decorating the fresh graves, the magazine reported.
  6. The federal government would, in 1966, declare Waterloo, New York, as the official birthplace of the holiday.
  7. In 1868, Union vet Gen. John A. Logan called for a national day of remembrance on May 30, which he called Decoration Day.
  8. Logan is considered by many to be the founder of Memorial Day.
  9. Decoration Day 1868 was celebrated at Arlington National Cemetery, where about 5,000 people placed flowers at the graves of more than 20,000 Civil War soldiers, History.com says.
  10. By 1890, each of the Northern states had made Decoration Day an official state holiday.
  11. Until World War I, Southern states held memorials for the war dead on separate days, according to the website.
  12. When Decoration Day was established in the North, many white Southerners refused to participate, according to Time. Southern states instead began celebrating Confederate Memorial Day, which never became a national holiday but is observed as a state holiday in many Southern states.
  13. Though Decoration Day was initially created solely to honor Civil War casualties, World War I brought about the need to honor additional soldiers lost in conflict.
  14. Over the decades, the holiday would evolve to include it, along with World War II, the Vietnam and Korean wars and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  15. The holiday continued to be celebrated on May 30 until 1968, when Congress changed the observation date to the last Monday in May. According to History.com, that change was made to create a three-day weekend for federal workers.
  16. Memorial Day was also established as a federal holiday at that point, according to Time.
  17. Cities across the U.S. honor the fallen soldiers through ceremonies and parades. Thousands of people remember the dead by visiting the cemeteries and decorating soldiers’ graves with flowers and American flags.
  18. Others choose to use the long weekend for parties to kick off the summer season. In 1972, a piece in Time described the holiday as a “three-day nationwide hootenanny that seems to have lost much of its original purpose.”
  19. Each year, there is a moment of silence observed at 3 p.m., local time.
  20. The Memorial Day weekend is one of the busiest travel weekends in the country. According to AAA, about 43.8 million people were expected to travel 50 miles or more from home over Memorial Day 2024.
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