The Origins of Memorial Day by Resident, John Shumway

Memorial DayMemorial Day is an American holiday honoring the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. It originated in the years following the Civil War but became an official federal holiday only in 1971. Memorial Day was at first known as Decoration Day. To honor the deceased, people would decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers, flags and wreaths. Hence “Decoration Day.” Memorial Day became its official title in the 1880’s.

National Memorial Day was inspired by the local observances of the day that had taken place in several towns throughout the North in the years after the Civil War. By around 1900, many more cities and communities observed Memorial Day, and several states had declared it a legal holiday. After World War I, it became an occasion for honoring those who died in all of America’s wars and was then more widely established as a national holiday throughout the United States.

It is very hard to accurately count the number of men or women who perished in America’s wars. Many died after the battle or in places removed from the battlefield. Sometimes it was not possible to accurately count the dead after terrible battlefield explosions or death aboard sinking ships.

The best estimate I can give is that about 972,500, or just under one million, American men and women have died defending us, one way or another.

Now, as in many things, Lincoln said it best on November 19, 1863:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.


But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 
—Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863.

John Shumway, CSL ResidentWritten by John Shumway, Carlton Senior Living Downtown Pleasant Hill Resident and retired Diablo Valley College history professor