The facts behind Memorial Day's controversial history

No one is sure how the holiday started, and people debate how it should be celebrated, but it still honors those who lost their lives in service of their country.

For many Americans, Memorial Day signifies the start of the summer season, as well as a much-needed long weekend. But that wasn’t the original purpose of the day—and its evolution over the years has been rife with controversy.

Memorial Day commemorates those who have lost their lives serving their country. It differs from Veterans Day, on November 11, which aims to celebrate and recognize all people who have served in the nation’s military branches.

Since the early 1970s, Memorial Day has been celebrated as a national holiday in the U.S. on the last Monday in May. But its roots reach back more than a century before that, in the bloody past of the nation’s most divided time: the Civil War.

The day has long been marked by solemn parades and ceremonies and the placing of flowers on the graves of fallen service members, as well as lighter activities like sporting events and barbecues. Yet some critics have complained that the holiday has drifted too far toward frivolous fun, and should be restored to a more respectful observance.

A disputed history

Regardless of how it’s celebrated, the origins of Memorial Day remain debated—and even controversial.

The U.S. Civil War was devastating for families on both sides of the conflict—nearly 500,000 men died, or about two percent of the U.S. population at the time. During the battle of Gettysburg, the Union and Confederacy lost more than 7,000 people.

In the years following the conflict, women, especially in the South, began tending to the graves of fallen soldiers, often regardless of which side they fought for. Their willingness to overlook past divisions was lauded in newspapers in the North. Their kindness was viewed as an olive branch to many, including northerner Francis Miles Finch, who wrote the popular poem “The Blue and The Grey” praising those efforts.

This Empowering Memorial Honors the Legacies of Military Women WATCH: The Women In Military Service For America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is the only major national memorial honoring U.S. servicewomen.

Some scholars have noted that the practice of decorating graves with flowers on specific days in spring is an ancient custom, and may thus represent the true roots of the holiday. Others have pointed to President Abraham Lincoln’s commemoration of the dead at Gettysburg in 1863 as a possible origin of the holiday. On May 1, 1865, a large group of recently freed African Americans held a parade in Charleston, South Carolina, to honor fallen Union soldiers. While some have pointed to that event as the “first Memorial Day,” others have cited a lack of evidence that the idea spread from there.

In May 1868, former Civil War General John A. Logan led a commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery, issuing a proclamation calling for "Decoration Day" to be observed each May 30 across the country. Logan, who would eventually run for vice president, was at the time the leader of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Army veterans. Logan called it Decoration Day because he said the fallen should be honored by "strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating, the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion." The month of May was likely chosen due to an abundance of spring flowers.

Still, where the first Memorial Day ceremony took place remained hotly contested for many decades, with more than two dozen cities around the country claiming the title. President Lyndon B. Johnson weighed in on the question in 1966 when he officially recognized Waterloo, New York’s ceremony on May 5, 1866, as the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. Waterloo’s supporters argued that event was deserving of the notice because it was formal and city wide, and included closing of local businesses.

Beyond the Civil War

After World War I, in which America lost more than 100,000 soldiers, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all those who had died while fighting—not just those from the Civil War. The name of the holiday also gradually shifted, with Memorial Day becoming more popular in the 20th century.

Congress made Memorial Day an official national holiday in 1971. Coming just after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968, which had moved observances of several holidays to create long weekends, the day was pegged to the last Monday in May.

In the years since, Memorial Day evolved into a three-day weekend filled with barbecues, sports, and store discounts, which often overshadow the day's more somber origins.

A return to May 30?

The American Legion has called for a return to a more serious observance of Memorial Day. "We believe that Memorial Day is a sacrosanct national observance for the entire country," John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion, previously told National Geographic.

In 2010, the organization wrote a resolution that called for ending the long weekend and restoring Memorial Day to May 30, noting, "The majority of Americans view Memorial Day as a time for relaxation and leisure recreation rather than as a solemn occasion and a time to reflect and pay tribute to the American servicemen and women who sacrificed their lives in defense of our Nation."

The late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, introduced legislation to move Memorial Day back to May 30 several times, without success. Some communities continue to host Memorial Day events on May 30 as well.

"There's nothing wrong with those things and enjoying the lifestyle that we have," Raughter said. "But remember that the lifestyle that we have in America—the ability to enjoy a long weekend—was made possible by the nearly one million men and women who have died in service to this country since the American Revolution."

Memorial Day observances

Yet many solemn observances of the day remain. Since 2000, people across the country have been asked to join in a moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. local time. Bells are tolled and NASCAR races are put on hold. Flags are flown at half-mast until noon, to signify a day of mourning.

Over Memorial Day weekend, more than 135,000 people visit Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Traditionally, the president or vice president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. More than 280,000 flags are placed at headstones.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic will affect how many will commemorate the holiday, though, with public pools closed and social distancing still in effect. Arlington National Cemetery is also closed to the public, though family pass holders will be allowed to visit their loved ones. But that doesn't mean Memorial Day will be forgotten: Arlington National Cemetery is encouraging virtual visitation and some local ceremonies will stream online instead.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It was originally published on May 24, 2019.