(excerpt from Warrior
Culture of the U.S. Marines, copyright 2001 Marion F. Sturkey)
The first Decoration Day
was 30 May 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil
War. Gen. John A.
Logan, U.S. Army, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic,
initiated the day of remembrance.
He ordered that all Army
posts decorate the graves of fallen Civil War comrades with
flowers and a "suitable ceremony," and that flags be
flown at half mast until noon.
Decoration Day later got a new name, Memorial
Day. On this day
the nation now honors those killed-in-action from all branches of
the armed forces. This
day of honor has been further expanded to include all wars and
conflicts in which American servicemen have made the Supreme
Sacrifice for their country.
And, in a solemn ceremony, a wreath is laid at the Tomb of
the Unknown Soldier (more about that later).
Since the late 1950s on the Thursday before Memorial Day,
the U.S. Army has placed small American flags at each of the
quarter-million-plus graves in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Army also stands guard in the cemetery through Memorial
Day to ensure that the flags remain in place.
In 1968 (the height of the hippie and flower power
generation), Congress changed the observance date from 30 May to
the last Monday in May. However,
in 1999 bills were introduced in both the House of Representatives
and the Senate, proposing restoration of 30 May as the day of
According to tradition, Memorial Day is observed by placing
flowers or small flags on the graves of American servicemen who
have fallen in battle. Americans
are encouraged to visit military memorials and to fly flags at
half mast until noon. They
also are asked to fly the relatively new "POW/MIA" flag,
per the 1998 Defense Authorization Act.
Further, all Americans are asked to participate in a
"Moment of Remembrance" at 3:00 pm and pledge to aid the
families of the honored dead.
In some of the southern states, in
addition to the national Memorial Day, citizens also observe Confederate
Memorial Day. On
this day they honor the Confederate soldiers, sailors, and Marines
who died in battle during the Civil War, 1861-1865.
Since this is a state holiday, each state may select its
day of observance. Confederate
Memorial Day is observed in Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi on
April 26; in South Carolina and North Carolina on May 10; in
Alabama on the last Monday in April; in Virginia on May 30; in
Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana on June 3 (the birthday of
Jefferson Davis); and in Texas on January 19 (the birthday of Gen.
Robert E. Lee).