The Establishment of Memorial Day

By Avi Heiligman


Memorial Day is much more than barbeques, the Indianapolis 500, vacations and the start of summer trips to the beach. It started as a tradition in the 1860s to honor the over 600,000 soldiers that had been killed during the Civil War. Since then the holiday hasn’t changed much and many will take this time to reflect on those lost in all wars. It should be noted that Veterans Day honors those who served, while Memorial Day is a remembrance for those killed in service in the U.S. military.

The practice of decorating a fallen soldier’s grave with flowers is centuries old and was done well before a day was established for the honor of our country’s fallen heroes. Three years after the American Civil War ended, Major General John Logan, then a congressman from Illinois, declared that there should be a Decoration Day. As the commander-in-chief of a veteran’s organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, Logan had May 30 proclaimed as the first Memorial Day in the North. Southern states had been holding similar Memorial Day celebrations since 1866. A year earlier, on May 1, 1865, 1,000 freed slaves along with U.S. black troops and white civilians gathered in Charleston, South Carolina, at a former POW camp. There they consecrated a new burial site for 250 Union troops that dies in the camp.

May 30 was chosen as Memorial Day because that is when flowers are blooming across the country. It was not to celebrate a particular battle or event, and some historians believe that Logan chose the date so as not coincide with any battle. May 30 was always Memorial Day until 1970 when Congress decided to make it a convenient three day weekend and moved it to the last Monday in May. The name Decoration Day slowly changed to Memorial Day and by 1967 Federal Law declared it the official name.

Twenty-seven states held some type of commemoration in 1868. The site of the Battle of Gettysburg was a major part of the 1868 Memorial Day events as speeches and ceremonies became an annual custom at the war’s most iconic battle site. Civil War General and future President Ulysses S. Grant headed the ceremonies at Arlington Nation Cemetery in Virginia with over 5,000 people in attendance. Future President James Garfield gave a lengthy speech at this event. Small American flags were placed at every grave and that tradition still continues today. In 1929 President Herbert Hoover presided over the first official Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington. Today there is a full Presidential Guard wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the morning of Memorial Day.

By the end of the 19th century several states had enacted legislation and the army and navy adopted regulations to honor their fallen predecessors. Several Southern sates held separate Memorial Day events until after World War I. Originally the day was to commemorate only the dead from the Civil War but gradually the fallen from all American wars were remembered on this day as well.

Traditions have evolved over the years as have the celebrations and commemorations. The American flag is flown at half-staff until noon on Memorial Day, at which point it is raised to the top. In 2000, Congress passed a resolution that at 3 PM all Americans should pause for the National Moment of Remembrance. Parades are held in several cities with many military personnel and veterans participating and organizing the events. Since the day is at the end of May many Americans use it as signal that the vacation season is starting.

Thousands of Jewish soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen have given their lives in defense of the United States since the Revolutionary War. The Cemetery for Hebrew Confederate Soldiers in Richmond, Virginia, is one of only two Jewish military cemeteries in the world outside of Israel. Dozens of Jewish Confederate soldiers are buried there while many other Jewish Confederates were buried by their families in their respective hometown. Many Jewish veterans take time out on Memorial Day to find the graves of these fallen soldiers and place flags by the headstones.

In the past, certain shuls read the names of their members who were killed in battle during the Shabbos prior to Memorial Day (presumably this was a Keil Maleh for those whose Yartzeits are unknown). Other shuls had a kiddush sponsored in the memory of the fallen soldiers, usually paid for by the local Jewish War Veterans chapter, on this particular Shabbos. In more recent years these practices have become less commonplace. When Memorial Day coincides with the second day of Shavuos some shuls include the names of those killed in battle during Yizkor.

In Logan’s 1868 order he writes, “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.”
Memorial Day should be a remembrance for those who made ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.