Memorial Day in the U.S. Means Way More Than Barbecue

Flags In 3d Infantry
Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place U.S. flags at headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia in preparation for Memorial Day. The regiment has been doing this for Memorial Day for more than 70 years. Arlington National Cemetery

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For most Americans, it signals the start of summer, the perfect excuse for a three-day getaway, and the first chance of the year to bust out those barbecuing skills. But how many Americans really understand the significance of Memorial Day? Before lighting up the grill and diving into the pool, get to know why this holiday holds a special place in so many American's hearts.

The name pretty much says it all, but Memorial Day is much more than a symbolic day of commemoration. It was originally called Decoration Day, and the tradition dates back to the 1860s when men and women decorated the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers with wreaths, flowers, flags and other items. The inspiration for the day came from local observances that had been popping up throughout the country in the three years following the war.

General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for veterans of the Union Army, was responsible for declaring the nationwide day of remembrance on May 5, 1868. In his proclamation, Logan wrote:

The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.

Why May 30?

May 30 was somewhat of a neutral date since it wasn't the anniversary of any one specific Civil War battle. The first national commemoration on May 30, 1868 was a major event at Arlington National Cemetery, with a speech from former Union General and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield. Following Garfield's words to attendees, 5,000 participants joined in to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 soldiers — both Union and Confederate — who were buried at Arlington.

That tradition still lives on at Arlington to this day, usually involving the current U.S. president or vice president laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the ceremonial placement of American flags on each grave.

This isn't the only account of the holiday's history, though. According to a 2018 New York Times article, Yale historian David W. Blight traces Memorial Day back to a series of commemorations in 1865 held by freed black Americans after Union soldiers, including members of the 21st United States Colored Infantry, liberated the port city of Charleston, South Carolina.

"The war was over, and Memorial Day had been founded by African-Americans in a ritual of remembrance and consecration," Blight wrote in the 2011 New York Times essay. "The war, they had boldly announced, had been about the triumph of their emancipation over a slaveholders' republic. They were themselves the true patriots." While Blight's origin theory isn't universally accepted, the facts behind the story are worth keeping in mind when celebrating this Memorial Day.

Every year over Memorial Day weekend, more than 135,000 people visit Arlington National Cemetery to honor those who have died while in the armed forces.
Arlington National Cemetery

From Decoration Day to Memorial Day

While most people agree that the commemoration was originally intended to pay homage to Civil War soldiers, as the United States entered World War I in 1917, the holiday evolved to honor the lives of any U.S. military personnel lost in any war. And while Logan proclaimed May 30 as the official calendar date, a full century later in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in an effort to create three-day weekends for federal employees. The change went into effect in 1971, and since that switch, Decoration Day became Memorial Day and the holiday has been observed on the last Monday of May each year.

Several Southern states also observe a separate day to specifically commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers: January 19 in Texas; the third Monday in January in Arkansas; fourth Monday in April in Alabama and Mississippi; April 26 in Florida and Georgia; May 10 in North and South Carolina; the last Monday in May in Virginia; and June 3 in Louisiana and Tennessee.

Memorial Day by the Numbers

As far as holidays go, Memorial Day does some heavy lifting in terms of the sheer number of people it pays tribute to. A few stats to keep in mind:

  • More than 45 million soldiers have served the United States during war time.
  • More than 1.35 million Americans have died in armed conflicts around the world.
  • There are 260,000 graves at Arlington National Cemetery, and each one is decorated with an American flag on Memorial Day.

But of course, over the decades since its official inception, Memorial Day has taken on somewhat of a hybrid vibe as many Americans consider the extra day off as a way to usher in summer. Here are some of the more lighthearted facts to know:

  • About 41.5 million Americans traveled over Memorial Day weekend 2018.
  • 60 percent of Americans fire up the barbecue to celebrate the holiday.
  • More than 180 running races are held each Memorial Day.