Memorial Day was first widely observed in May 1868. The celebration commemorated the sacrifices of the Civil War and the proclamation was made by Gen. John A Logan. Following the proclamation, participants decorated graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
In years since World War I, the day has become a celebration of honor for those who died in all America’s wars, as well as those who are veterans and current members of the U.S. military.
In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday, always celebrated on the last Monday of May.
President Ronald Reagan is credited with reviving the practice of honoring Memorial Day and its meaning. One of his famous speeches was given at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1986. In part, Reagan said:
“Today is the day we put aside to remember fallen heroes and to pray that no heroes will ever have to die for us again. It’s a day of thanks for the valor of others, a day to remember the splendor of America and those of her children who rest in this cemetery and others.
“I was thinking this morning that across the country children and their parents will be going to the town parade and the young ones will sit on the sidewalks and wave their flags as the band goes by. Later, maybe, they’ll have a cookout or a day at the beach. And that’s good, because today is a day to be with the family and to remember.
“Arlington, this place of so many memories, is a fitting place for some remembering. So many wonderful men and women rest here, men and women who led colorful, vivid, and passionate lives. There are the greats of the military: Bull Halsey and the Admirals Leahy, father and son; Black Jack Pershing; and the GI’s general, Omar Bradley. Great men all, military men. But there are others here known for other things.
“Here in Arlington rests a sharecropper’s son who became a hero to a lonely people. Joe Louis came from nowhere, but he knew how to fight. And he galvanized a nation in the days after Pearl Harbor when he put on the uniform of his country and said, ‘I know we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.’ Audie Murphy is here, Audie Murphy of the wild, wild courage. For what else would you call it when a man bounds to the top of a disabled tank, stops an enemy advance, saves lives, and rallies his men, and all of it single-handedly. When he radioed for artillery support and was asked how close the enemy was to his position, he said, ‘Wait a minute and I’ll let you speak to them.’
“Michael Smith is here, and Dick Scobee, both of the space shuttle Challenger. Their courage wasn’t wild, but thoughtful, the mature and measured courage of career professionals who took prudent risks for great reward—in their case, to advance the sum total of knowledge in the world. … they join other great explorers with names like Grissom and Chaffee.
“Oliver Wendell Holmes is here, the great jurist and fighter for the right. A poet searching for an image of true majesty could not rest until he seized on ‘Holmes dissenting in a sordid age.’ Young Holmes served in the Civil War. He might have been thinking of the crosses and stars of Arlington when he wrote: ‘At the grave of a hero we end, not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.’
“All of these men were different, but they shared this in common: They loved America very much.
“If we really care about peace, we must stay strong. If we really care about peace, we must, through our strength, demonstrate our unwillingness to accept an ending of the peace. We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does. That’s the lesson … of this day.”
Does Memorial Day have meaning to you?