The history and importance of Memorial Day

By Ramona Muse Lambert/freelance
By Ramona Muse Lambert/freelance

The American Civil War, which lasted four years and ended in 1865, devastated the country. Historians estimate that the number of lives lost was anywhere from 618,000 to 750,000, if you fought in the Civil War, you had a one-in-four chance of returning home alive.

In the years after the war, grieving families began to decorate the graves of their lost soldiers. In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan declared May 30 Decoration Day — a day to honor the military dead by decorating their graves.

On that first Decoration Day, Rep. James Garfield, who would later become America’s 20th president, stated, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

In 1873, New York became the first state to designate May 30 as an official holiday, calling it Memorial Day. From there the tradition grew. As America entered more wars and saw the deaths of so many more soldiers, Memorial Day became about remembering everyone who lost their lives.

In 1971, lawmakers made Memorial Day an official national holiday occurring on the last Monday in May.

Traditionally, the President and Vice President go to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia and place a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a memorial to all those who have died in American wars, but whose names have been forgotten, or whose bodies never made it home for burial.

Because many Americans get the day off school and work, Memorial Day has become a holiday of picnics and fun. But the history of the holiday and the reason we have it is very serious — people who lost their lives because of war.


My little brother, Caleb, served in the Army. He joined because he was 11 during the attacks of September 11, 2001. Watching those attacks on TV, he said he wanted to do whatever he could to protect his country. Caleb likes to say, “On Memorial Day, don’t thank me, thank the people who are not here to thank.”

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