Memorial Day: Legally

By Margaret Mitschke*

Our office will be closed on Monday, May 25th in honor of Memorial Day. Do you know the legal basis for Memorial Day?

While it is known as an official national holiday meant to honor those who have fallen in all American wars, it was not always this way. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the history of Memorial Day started on May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. The Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans, declared that May 30th would be Decoration Day. On this day, the nation would decorate the graves of those that had perished in war. The first large Decoration Day observance was hMemorial-Dayeld at Arlington National Cemetery, and included speeches, reciting prayers, and decorating both Union and Confederate graves with flowers.

There are many cities that claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as local tributes were held before the 1868 celebration. Columbus, Mississippi is one such city. On April 25, 1866, a group of women decorated Confederate and Union soldiers’ graves for those who had fallen in the battle at Shiloh. Other cities, including Macon and Columbus, Georgia, Richmond, Virginia, Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, and Carbondale, Illinois, also claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson and the United States Congress declared Waterloo, New York was the birthplace of Memorial Day because of the ceremony held there on May 5, 1866, honoring local veterans who fought in the Civil War.

It was not until 1971 that Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday by an act of Congress. Federal law declared the last Monday in May as Memorial Day, and expanded the local customs to honor those who died in all American wars. Also, in December 2000, the United States Congress and President George W. Bush signed “The National Moment of Remembrance Act.” This act encourages all Americans to pause wherever they are at 3 p.m. local time on Memorial Day for a minute of silence.

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