Surprising facts you never knew about Memorial Day

22 May 2020 • Memories

How much do you know about Memorial Day?

Memorial Day might be associated with memories of military parades and backyard barbecues with friends and family, but it’s also important we remember those who served our country in war — particularly soldiers who lost their lives for our freedom.

The concept itself dates back to Ancient Greece and Rome, with links also found in Lincoln’s efforts to unify the US post-Civil War. However, it was only officially recognized as a federal holiday in the 1970s. 

To help understand more about Memorial Day, Memories has pull together eights facts you might not have known about the holiday. 

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1. The official Memorial Day birthplace is of contention 

More than two dozen towns and cities claim to be the birthplace of the first Memorial Day in 1886 - two years before the first federal commemoration.

While many places would like to claim to be the birthplace, the official distinction was given to Waterloo, New York, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

He cited the town’s unbroken legacy of honoring our national day of remembrance as the reason why it had been selected. 

2. Memorial Day dates back to Ancient Greeks and Romans

Memorial Day might be a famous US holiday, but commemorative events for fallen soldiers did not start in Americia. 

The first practice of honoring fallen soldiers dates back thousands of years to the Ancient Greeks and Romans - both held annual days of remembrance, which included with public festivals and feasts conducted in their honor. 

Athens was also home to public funerals for fallen soldiers. These funerals were held after each battle, with the remains of the dead put on display for public mourning before the procession. 

One of the first-known memorial tributes for fallen soldiers was in 431 BC for soldiers killed in the Peloponnesian War.

Ancient Rome had Memorial Day celebrations

3. Freed slaves organised one of the earliest US commemorations

Thousands of Union soldiers were held as prisoners of war as the US Civil War drew to a close.

The POWs were herded into a series of hastily assembled camps in South Carolina, with more than 250 soldiers being held at a racetrack passing away because of poor conditions. 

A mass grave was established behind the track’s grandstand for the soldiers. 

Three weeks after the Confederate surrender - May 1, 1865 - more than 1,000 recently freed prisoners and regiments of US troops gathered on the site to consecrate a new, proper burial site for the Union dead.

The group sang hymns, gave readings and distributed flowers around the cemetery - these were dedicated to the “Martyrs of the Race Course”.

4. Confederate women inspired the holiday 

While there was a memorial held at the gravesite of the 250 Union soldiers who lost their lives, graves of dead soldiers were believed to have been informally decorated before the war ended.

In 1886, the Ladies Memorial Association of Georgia resolved to commemorate the fallen once a year, with flowers placed on graves of fallen Confederate soldiers as an act of kindness.

The group also distributed flowers on the graves of fallen Union enemies as a sign of forgiveness, with early commemorations rarely held on one standard day. 

Nine southern states still recognize a Confederate Memorial Day.

Memorial Day

5. The man behind the first decree 

Commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic John A. Logan was responsible for issuing a decree calling for a memorial day to be held on May 30, 1868. 

He suggested the date become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War.

The so-called Decoration Day encouraged Americans to lay flowers and decorate the graves of those left dead from the war. He believed there were dead in "almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land”. 

It’s reported Logan selected May 30 because it was a rare date that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe it was selected to ensure flowers across the country would be in full bloom. 

The holiday’s name was changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day in 1967, with the date also changing to the last Monday of May. 

When he died in 1886, Logan’s body was laid in the United States Capitol - at the time he was one of just 33 people to have received the honor.

6. Protests play as much of a role as celebration

The holiday might be one to share memories and celebrate, but it’s also known for protests - including those by veterans opposed to war.

On the first federally mandated Memorial Day holiday in 1971, anti-war protests across the country came together to protest the celebration, which came at a time when the US was still fighting in the Vietnam War.

The New York Times reported Boston as having the largest protests with “about 200 [veterans] wearing battle fatigues and carrying plastic rifles …  seeking to ‘spread the alarm’ against the war on Asian battlefields”.

Many of the protestors spent Sunday morning in a makeshift jail.

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7. The day honours the nameless 

As part of the Memorial Day customs, US presidents offer remarks to the nation at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Official record said the tradition dates back to when caskets containing remains of unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War arrived in Washington DC on May 28, 1958. 

“[The caskets] were transported to Arlington, where they were interred in the plaza beside their World War I comrade. President Eisenhower awarded each the Medal of Honor,” records state.

8. Memorial Day 2020 is unlike any other 

From barbecues to the National Memorial Day Parade along Constitution Avenue in Washington, the US has become used to celebrating with others in large crowds.

However, due to COVID-19, the special event will see countless public displays of gratitude and celebration across the nation put on hold or restricted. 

For those cities where stay-at-home orders have been eased, there will be some smaller celebrations provided that people follow social distancing guidelines and practice good hygiene. 

"Based on the data that is emerging, the risk of transmission outside — especially while practicing social distancing — is almost negligible," infectious diseases physician Dr. Isaac Bogoch told CNBC

"It seems to be a low-risk setting, but that doesn't mean there is no risk."

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