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The storied history of Memorial Day

“I am oppressed with a sense of the impropriety of uttering words on this occasion. If silence is ever golden, it must be here beside the graves of fifteen thousand men, whose lives were more significant than speech, and whose death was a poem, the music of which can never be sung.”

— U.S. Rep. James A. Garfield, R-Ohio, a major general in the Civil War and later president, speaking at the first Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868.

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This weekend marks the traditional beginning of summer, marked by family gatherings, picnics and other outdoor fun. But it is a solemn occasion as well. Memorial Day, now observed on the last Monday of May, honors all those who died while serving in the U.S. military.

Unlike Veterans Day, which honors all those who served, Memorial Day is dedicated only to those who lost their lives in that service.

The holiday was originally called Decoration Day, for the flowers and flags placed on the graves of fallen soldiers by their loved ones. It was established in the wake of the Civil War, which still stands as the deadliest war in U.S. history, and was intended to honor only those killed in that conflict.

According to History.com, many communities began holding springtime tributes to the Civil War dead in the late 1860s. Some historical accounts indicate that one of the first commemorations was organized by formerly enslaved African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, less than a month after the Confederate surrender in 1865.

In 1868, Gen. John A. Logan, who headed an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, declared May 30 of that year the first national day of remembrance. The date was chosen because it did not coincide with any specific battle.

After World War I, the holiday, which eventually became known as Memorial Day, evolved to honor those who died in all U.S. wars. It was celebrated on May 30 until 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act passed by Congress took effect. That law also made it a federal holiday for the first time.

Remembering those who gave their lives in the service of their country is the reason for tomorrow’s holiday, which should not be forgotten. At 3 p.m. Monday is the National Moment of Remembrance, when Americans are asked, wherever they are, to pause for one minute to remember those who have died in military service. Taps is traditionally played at this time.

So when 3 p.m. arrives tomorrow, take a moment to honor those whose sacrifice is the reason for your day of relaxation.