As the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (USVA) tells it, the origins of Memorial Day have been somewhat contentious, with many regions claiming to be the birthplace of the holiday. The first large-scale celebration, however, occurred three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868.
A crowd of about 5,000 attended; children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan Home and veterans weaved through Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., placing flowers on Union and Confederate graves alike.
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The Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, established Decoration Day—a day to decorate all graves of those who died during the war, celebrated in May when the flowers are in bloom across the nation.
“With the choicest flowers of springtime,” the dead should be honored, said Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, according to the USVA. “We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. … Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the official birthplace of Memorial Day. Other places that claimed that designation had observances that “were either informal, not community-wide or one-time events,” said supporters of the Waterloo claim, according to USVA.
After WWI, Memorial day expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In December 2000, The National Moment of Remembrance Act became law, encouraging all Americans to observe a moment of silence at 3 p.m. local time.
December 2000, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” P.L. 106-579, creating the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance.
The National Moment of Remembrance encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.
Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada says, according to USVA: “It’s a way we can all help put the memorial back in Memorial Day.”
Revolutionary War (1775-1783): 4,435 deaths
War of 1812 (1812-1815): 286,730 served, 2,260 deaths
Mexican War (1864-1848): 78,718 served, 13,283 deaths
Civil War (1861-1865) Union Forces: 2,213,363 served, 364,511 deaths
Spanish-American War (1898): 306,760 served, 2,446 deaths
World War I (1917-1918): 4,734,991 served, 116,516 deaths
World War II (1941-1946): 16,112,566 served, 405,399 deaths
Korean War (1950-1953): 5,720,000 served, 36,574 deaths
Vietnam Conflict (1964-1973): 8,744,000 served, 58,220 deaths
Persian Gulf War (1990-1991): 2,225,000 served, 383 deaths
Global War on Terror (2001-present): 6,962 deaths
Total: 40,422,128 served, 1,010,989 deaths
Deaths by war statistics from the Congressional Research Service.
A previous version of this article included a reference to an article written by Daniel Briskin for Natural Selections. The reference has been removed.