by Lori Riddle

Memorial Day - mother and sonToday on the Think Tank, we're taking a moment to talk about Memorial Day and what it really means. Hint: it's not just a 3-day weekend.

A look at the history of the holiday reminds us that there's so much more to it, and this photo of a soldier's widow and her young son at Arlington National Cemetery tells us a lot more about what matters on Memorial Day than any retail ad ever could. (Photo – Pete Marovich / EPA)



Memorial Day – It’s Not Just About Burgers on the Grill

For many Americans, Memorial Day is the unofficial but widely recognized beginning of summer. It’s the prelude to longer days and all the good stuff we love about summertime. If you have kids in school, you know that the three-day weekend that comes with Memorial Day wets everyone’s appetite for summer vacation and its freedoms. We celebrate Memorial Day with cook outs and days at the beach or the lake, family get-togethers, fireworks, parades and homemade ice cream.

But what, really, is Memorial Day for? Despite what every grocery store ad screams, Memorial Day was not set aside as the National Day of Barbecuing. Neither was it created to celebrate and honor the nation’s appliance stores, car dealers or other major retailers.

In a 2013 post about Memorial Day, blogger, mom and military wife Stephanie Howell asks us to remember the reason why this holiday is on our national calendar.

“Memorial Day is bittersweet. I always enjoy being with friends. And this year I am so grateful that J (my soldier husband) is HOME. Not just home, but that he is still here with us. I have so many friends that cannot say the same thing... I do not expect you to walk around all mopey on Monday. That is not my expectation. But I'm asking for a basic level of realization. And empathy to the husbands and wives that are widows and widowers this year. The parents who lost a son or daughter. The children who have lost their mommy or daddy.

They should not be forgotten. It's one day. One day to remember.”

A National Event at Arlington 150 Years Ago

Memorial Day as we know it began as Decoration Day, a holiday established to recognize and honor the Civil War dead. Major General John A. Logan, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an organization of Union veterans, declared May 30th, 1868, as Decoration Day. It is thought that the day was chosen in part because there would be flowers in bloom all over the country at that time of year.

Memorial Day   Arlington Mansion 1868The first Washington-sanctioned Decoration Day ceremony was held at Arlington Mansion, the site of what would become Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery had only recently been established to provide a final resting place for the thousands of Civil War soldiers who could not be buried in their home towns because of transportation and burial costs, lack of available space in local cemeteries, or because their remains had not been identified.

General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife were among the Washington officials presiding over the Decoration Day events at Arlington in 1868. Following the ceremonies, children from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Orphan home, along with members of the GAR, walked through the cemetery, singing hymns and reciting prayers as they decorated the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers with fresh flowers.

We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” James A. Garfield, May 30, 1868


Early Decoration Days and the Birthplace of Memorial Day

Other local springtime ceremonies to remember the fallen soldiers from both sides of the Civil War were held in the three years between the end of the war and Major General Logan’s official Decoration Day. In April of 1866, a group of Columbus, MS, women held a tribute to the victims of the Battle of Shiloh. They decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers. In all there are a couple dozen towns, most of them in the South, that claim a connection to Decoration Day ceremonies held prior to the 1868 program at Arlington.

Memorial Day Waterloo NY

The city of Waterloo, NY, claimed to have held the first Memorial Day event that was a city-wide, officially recognized and planned as an annual observance. In May of 1866, Waterloo held a Memorial Day celebration in which businesses were closed, flags flew at half-staff and all local veterans, as well as those who’d lost their lives in the Civil War, were honored. 100 years later, in 1966, President Lyndon B Johnson recognized Waterloo, NY, as the official birthplace of Memorial day.


Tens of Thousands to Remember

Troops placing flags at ArlingtonFor decades, Memorial Day provided an opportunity to remember and honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Following World War I, it became an occasion to remember and honor the nation’s dead from all wars. In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, making Memorial Day a Federal Holiday, to be observed on the last Monday of May.

Today, Memorial Day celebrations are held all over the country, with many people adhering to the tradition of placing flowers on the graves of soldiers – a tradition that began with those early Decoration Day ceremonies immediately following the Civil War. Many communities hold Memorial Day parades and other events to recognize the service and sacrifice of our fallen military heroes. Memorial Day at Arlington has been observed every year since 1868 with programs, ceremonies and special attention to more than 300,000 military graves.

From, here’s a chart that shows the number of American lives lost in our military conflicts. This total number will continue to grow as long as we have military personnel in harm’s way.

American Revolution (1775-1783)


War of 1812 (1812-1815)


Mexican War (1846-1848)


Civil War (1861-1865)

140,414 (Union); 74,524 (Confederate)

Spanish-American War (1898-1902) 


World War I (1917-1918)


World War II (1941-1945)


Korean War (1950-1953)


Vietnam War (1964-1975)


Gulf War (1990-1991)


Afghanistan War (2001-present)

2,317 (as of April 25, 2014)

Iraq War (2003-2012)


One Minute of Your Time to Memorialize Their Sacrifice

In 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, establishing a White House Commission to encourage and support of Memorial Day observations and a national moment of observation on Memorial Day. The official National Moment of Remembrance is at 3:00 pm, local time, and is observed as one minute of silence in honor of all who have lost their lives in military service. Moment of Remembrance founder Carmelia LaSpada says:

“It’s a way we can all help put the Memorial back in Memorial Day.”

 National Moment of Remembrance


This Memorial Day, please join us in remembering and honoring the men and women who have lost their lives in service to our country.

For more information about the history of Memorial Day, The National Moment of Remembrance and Memorial Day celebrations for 2014, check out these links:

The History Channel

The Memorial Day Tribute

US Dept of Veterans Affairs

National Memorial Day Concert

Arlington National Cemetery

Storage Tank Contractor Business Lessons Memorial Day

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