Memorial Day, originally established to honor the Civil
War dead, now honors all Americans who served in the military and gave their
lives for their country. Unofficially, the holiday has been extended beyond
its military connection to become a day of general tribute to the dead. On Memorial
Day, cemeteries are crowded with families who come to place flowers on the graves
of their loved ones.
Shortly after the bitter and bloody Civil War between the North and South, the women of Columbus, Mississippi decorated the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers, thus honoring the war dead who were their enemies along with their defenders. Northerners were touched by this gesture and saw it as a symbol of national unity. In 1868, Decoration Day-now called Memorial Day-become a legal holiday.
In most states, Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday in May. Some southern states observe a Confederate Memorial Day in memory of the soldiers who fought in the Confederate army. The date of this holiday varies from one state to another.
The military origin of Memorial Day is evident in the parades and customs which mark the occasion. Military exercises are held at
Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and at the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.