Do You Know the Meaning of Memorial Day?
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by Causes | 5.30.21
- For many, the Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer, a time for corporate America to mark down its wares, a time to enjoy the improving weather with beers, BBQs, and a three-day weekend.
- The holiday’s true purpose is to honor the service of U.S. military personnel who lost their lives in the line of duty to ensure that Americans have the freedom to enjoy a three-day weekend, which is why some servicemembers and veterans object to the phrase “Happy Memorial Day.” That purpose distinguishes Memorial Day from Veterans Day, which honors former servicemembers, and Armed Forces Day, which recognizes the ongoing service of those in the military today.
- The first observances of what would eventually become known as Memorial Day began the year after the Civil War ended in 1866 when a number of communities gathered together to decorate the graves of local soldiers who were killed in the conflict.
- Where the holiday officially began has been a matter of debate, as around 25 of those communities — including some in Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania — have claimed to be its birthplace. Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared in 1966 that Waterloo, New York had been the true birthplace a century earlier, when the town’s businesses all closed for the day and flags were flown at half-staff.
- The first large-scale observance of the holiday (known back then as Decoration Day) happened on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. There, two former Union generals — John Logan and James Garfield (who later became president) — gave a speech to 5,000 participants before the crowd decorated over 20,000 graves of the Union and Confederate soldiers buried there:
“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 virtue.” — James Garfield May 30, 1868 Arlington National Cemetery
- After the conclusion of World War I, Decoration Day was broadened to honor not just those killed in the Civil War, but fallen soldiers from all conflicts.
- The term “Memorial Day” was first used in 1882 and became more widely used following World War II, but didn’t become the holiday’s official name until 1967. The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holidays Act which moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the final Monday in May, allowing for a convenient three-day weekend.
- The Civil War is still the deadliest conflict in U.S. history, accounting for about 750,000 of the more than 1,354,664 Americans who’ve died in the service of their country since the Revolutionary War.
- This USAFacts chart shows the 620,000 deaths that occurred in wars and military operations over the last 120 years and the breakdown of deaths from hostile action in combat and non-combat deaths from accidents and injuries:
- The deadliest conflict since the turn of the 20th century is World War II, in which 405,000 servicemembers died and over 291,000 were killed in combat.
- There have been over 7,000 U.S. military deaths in the 21st century during the Global War on Terror, which began following the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Most of those deaths occurred during military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- This USAFacts chart shows U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom (October 2001 to December 2014) and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (January 2015 to present); and in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 2003 to 2010), Operation New Dawn (September 2010 to December 2011), and Operation Inherent Resolve (June 2014 to present):
- Most of the U.S. military deaths have been among servicemembers younger than 30, who accounted for more than three-quarters of all deaths during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and about two-thirds of all deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This USAFacts chart shows the age ranges of the American servicemembers killed in those two operations:
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser via Arlington National Cemetery Flickr / Public Domain)
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