Memorial Day honors the sacrifice of those American servicemen and women who have died while serving their country. The day originated in the 1860s as a way of remembering those that perished during the Civil War. In May 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans’ organization, held its first “Decoration Day.” On this day, citizens honored and mourned the war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. May 30 was eventually chosen as an official date by Major General John A. Logan because, seasonally, it was a day on which flowers were plentiful across the country. Fittingly, the first large Decoration Day ceremony took place in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery and was attended by a variety of Washington D.C. officials, including future president Ulysses S. Grant.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Decoration Day was an unofficial nationwide holiday that had replaced local spring ceremonies. After World War I, it was expanded to honor not just Civil War soldiers, but all fallen American servicemen. In 1971, Congress designated “Memorial Day” as a national holiday celebrated on the last Monday of May.
Today, Memorial Day is still honored in many of the same ways – presidents partake in a traditional wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery, towns and cities hold Memorial Day parades, and families visit the gravesides of their deceased military family members. Citizens wish to remember and honor those servicemen for making the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. On the occasion of Memorial Day, JMC has gathered together fellows’ publications and online resources on the holiday and the American military heritage.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing the American military and its history. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
From Rutherford B. Hayes’s Address at the Unveiling of the Soldiers’ Monument, September 12, 1877:
“…All who took part in those first battles of the great conflict, you remember and can never forget the feelings of sadness with which we saw the remains of our dead comrades gathered up and placed in their last resting place. They were gathered up, you know, by the parties detailed to bury the dead carefully, respectfully and tenderly, and when the shallow grave had been dug, and in their uniforms they had been laid away and covered over, their comrades looked about to see what memento they could leave, and they left frail fragments of cracker boxes, marking with a pencil the name of the regiment and company of the dead comrade, hoping that they would in some way be useful, little perhaps dreaming at the time that to the private soldier should be erected with granite and marble and brass such a structure as we now behold and behold the change. Instead of that little fragment, perishable and fragile, we have these enduring monuments forever to gaze upon. How glorious the change. Does it not remind us of the growth in the sentiment of all mankind of the appreciation of the worth that these men did?
…Forever hereafter we shall remember the American private soldier as having established a free nation where every man has an equal chance and fair start in the race of life. This is the work of the American private soldier, and as that monument teaches many lessons let us not forget this one. It is a monument to remind us that many are still living of that great army, who are the victims of that war. Some have lost limbs, some have lost habits and characteristics which enable men to succeed in life. Wherever they are, let us remember always the debt to the dead American soldier can be best paid by the kindness and regard to the living American soldier.”
Selected online resources on the American military:
Both the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Constitution Center provide articles on Memorial Day and its origins. The holiday has roots both in the North and the South and stood as a common experience for citizens in a country broken by the Civil War.
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Memorial Day,” that considers the experience of war and asks how we should properly honor those servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.
After World War I, Memorial Day was expanded to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in service to our country. In the past decade, hundreds have been added to the roster of those whose lives and service we are summoned today to remember. But how should we the living best honor these lives and those memories? In what manner and spirit should we remember? Why Memorial Day today? Our ebook, “The Meaning of Memorial Day,” explores these questions with selections from American authors and statesmen, including Herman Melville, Ernie Pyle, Louisa May Alcott, Frederick Douglass, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.
The Arlington National Cemetery website provides information on several notable Americans buried there, including Medal of Honor recipients, military leaders, presidents, and Revolutionary War heroes.
The National Archives provides a vast array of resources for Memorial Day, including military records, videos, and photographs of presidential wreath-laying ceremonies.
The WWI Origins of the Poppy as a Remembrance Symbol
Today, the red poppy is an international symbol of remembrance and is particularly associated with World War I causalities. While many citizens around the world wear poppies on November 11, Remembrance Day, Americans traditionally display this symbol for Memorial Day. Writing for the History Channel, Sarah Pruitt explores the origins of the poppy as a symbol of fallen servicemen.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Memorial Day, the American military, or the philosophy of war, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.