A Day to Remember

Ben Bomzer, Features/Sports Section Editor

Ben Bomzer

Barbeques are fired up. Stores announce irresistible sales. The lively and rhythmic sounds of parades fill the air. Many people consider Memorial Day to be the unofficial start to the summer season, and often throw parties over the long weekend. But what’s the origin of the holiday, which dates back more than 150 years?


The holiday wasn’t even called Memorial Day at first. It was actually called Declaration Day. It was a day where people covered graves with flowers and flags to remember the fallen veterans. Decoration Day was first held on May 30, 1868 to remember the sacrifices of more than 500,000 Civil War soldiers who were killed. May 30 was chosen because no significant Civil War conflict had taken place on that date. 


James Garfield, a sitting Ohio Congressman and former Union general (who would later be President), led the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery and made a speech saying that “For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” After Garfield finished, 5,000 people helped decorate more than 20,000 graves of Confederate and Union soldiers. 


Before the gathering in 1868, many people were already holding ceremonies to pay tribute to fallen soldiers, including freed slaves who gathered to remember Union soldiers in South Carolina in 1865. New York solidified the tradition by becoming the first state to call it a holiday in 1873, which led to many other states also designating it as such. 


The holiday was a national tradition by the end of World War I as Americans began to hold remembrance ceremonies for fallen soldiers in all wars.


In 1966, the federal government designated Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the holiday. Waterloo was chosen because all of its stores traditionally closed on Memorial Day and everyone in the community gathered to pay their respects. Congress declared that Memorial Day was to be celebrated on the last Monday of May by passing the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971. 


Every year, Arlington National Cemetery holds a ceremony for Memorial Day where each grave receives a miniature American flag. The President also places flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. 


Locally, there are many  monuments that honor and celebrate the fallen soldiers. For example, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arc memorializes the 4,000 Union soldiers from Hartford who fought in the Civil War, including 400 who perished. 


Despite all of the celebrations, Memorial Day is also a solemn holiday. The American flag is hung halfway up the flagpole until noon. At 3:00 pm on every Memorial Day, there’s a national moment of remembrance. Americans are asked to pause in their activities to remember. It’s something that we all should think about for next year.