Every Memorial Day, Americans unite to remember and honor those who gave their lives in service of our country. As worthy of a cause as that is, the way the states celebrated that idea was not uniform at first.
The holiday was originally proposed by General John Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans. He wanted a day to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War by covering their graves with flowers. He reportedly chose May 30 because it didn’t overlap with the anniversary of any battles—and plenty of flowers would be in bloom by then.
The first Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, was held on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. A crowd of 5,000 came to decorate the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
New York was the first state to declare Memorial Day an official holiday, and by 1890, all northern states followed suit. The South, however, didn’t acknowledge it; those states had their own days of commemoration for their dead that started as early as April of 1866, when a group of women in Mississippi decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers with graves. That’s why it’s difficult to say where the idea for the holiday originated. Many local celebrations in the north and south claim to be the “first” one.
It stayed that way until after World War I, when Memorial Day was changed to remember Americans who died fighting in any war. In 1971, the date was changed to the last Monday in May, as per the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved federal holidays like Presidents’ Day to a Monday so workers could enjoy more three-day weekends.
Some southern states continue to honor the Confederate dead: January 19 in Texas; April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi; May 10 in South Carolina; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.
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