Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday established to mourn and remember the U.S. military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. It is observed on the last Monday of May. Each year on Memorial Day a national moment of remembrance takes place at 3:00 p.m. local time. From 1868 to 1970 Memorial Day was observed on May 30, no matter what day of the week it fell on.
Originally known as Decoration Day, the observance began shortly after the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865. The war claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required national cemeteries to lay to rest many of those who died during the war.
Within a couple of years after the end of the Civil War, Americans in many towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to the hundreds of thousands of fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.
It is unclear exactly where the tradition began; numerous communities independently initiated memorial gatherings. Records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, less than one month after the end of the Civil War. However, the federal government declared in 1966 that Waterloo, New York, was the official birthplace of what became Memorial Day.
Waterloo, which first celebrated the day on May 5, 1866, was chosen because it hosted an annual community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, who led an organization of Union Army Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later in May. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” Logan proclaimed.
The date of Decoration Day, as he called it, was chosen in part because no major battle was fought on that date. On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.
Many northern states held similar commemorative events and kept up the tradition in succeeding years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, however, continued to honor their war dead on separate days until after World War I.
History of Memorial Day
Decoration Day gradually came to be known as Memorial Day. For many years it honored only those lost while fighting in the Civil War. But during World War I, the United States was in another major conflict, and the holiday evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars.
As noted above, Memorial Day was observed on May 30 for more than 100 years. In 1968, however, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established that Memorial Day would be celebrated on the last Monday in May. This was done in part to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The change of date went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.
Memorial Day traditions/rituals
Each Memorial Day, cities and towns across the United States host parades and celebrations of all kinds, often incorporating active-duty military personnel and members of veterans’ organizations.
Many Americans also observe the holiday by visiting cemeteries and memorials to those in the military branches who gave their lives in service to the nation. A tradition that seems to be waning is that some people wear a red poppy in remembrance of those who died in war. This was a tradition that began with a World War I poem.
Deaths in battle by war
- American Revolution (1775-1783) – Battle/Illness Deaths – 25,000
- War of 1812 (1812-1815) – Battle/Illness Deaths – 20,000
- Indian Wars (approx. 1817-1898) – Battle Deaths (Veterans Administration estimate) – 1,000
- Mexican War (1846-1848) – Battle Deaths – 1,733; Other Deaths (in theater) – 11,550
- Civil War (1861-1865) – Battle Deaths (Union) – 140,414; Other Union Deaths (in theater) – 224,097; Battle Deaths (Confederate) – 374,524; Other Confederate Deaths (in theater) – 459,297; Does not include 26,000 to 31,000 who died in Union prisons
- Spanish-American War (1898-1902) Battle Deaths – 385; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) – 2,061
- World War I (1917-1918) – Battle Deaths – 53,402; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) 63,114
- World War II (1941 –1945) – Battle Deaths 291,557; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) – 113,842
- Korean War (1950-1953) – Battle Deaths 33,739; Other Deaths (In Theater) – 2,835; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) – 17,672
- Vietnam War (1964-1975) – 47,434; Other Deaths (In Theater) – 10,786; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) – 32,000
- Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991) – Battle Deaths 148; Other Deaths (In Theater) – 235; Other Deaths in Service (Non-Theater) – 1,565
- Global War on Terror (Oct 2001 – ) The Global War on Terror (GWOT), including Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) – Battle Deaths 7,075
U.S. Military Branches and their start date
United States Army
Year Established: June 14, 1775 (Continental Army); June 3, 1784 (current U.S. Army)
Role: Land warfare
The United States Army was originally founded as the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, which makes the Army the oldest branch of the U.S. military. The Second Continental Congress established the Army so the original 13 colonies to fight British forces during the American Revolution.
The Continental Army lasted until the end of the Revolutionary War and was replaced by the current U.S. Army on June 3, 1784. Congress initially called this new force the First American Regiment and it consisted of 700 men from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Eight infantry and two artillery companies comprised the regiment.
Since then, the Army has participated in every war in United States history. The Army is the nation’s dominant land power. It generally moves into an area, secures it and instills order and values before it leaves. It also guards U.S. installations and properties throughout the world.
United States Navy
Year Established: October 13, 1775 (Continental Navy); March 27, 1794 (current U.S. Navy)
Role: Naval warfare; power projection; and sealift
The United States Navy was established just a few months after the Army on October 13, 1775. The Continental Congress voted to arm two sailing vessels with 10 carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and a crew of 80 men. The ships were sent to intercept transports carrying munitions and provisions to the British army in America.
After the Revolutionary War, the ships of the Continental Navy were sold and the seamen were discharged. However, the 1794 Congress passed the “Act to provide Naval Armament.” The Act authorized Congress to procure and man six frigates. Three of those frigates, USS United States, USS Constellation, and USS Constitution, were completed and launched in 1797 – these three ships are considered the beginning of the modern Navy.
On April 30, 1798, Congress established the Department of the Navy, to run naval affairs. The Navy accomplishes its missions primarily by sea but also by air and land. It secures and protects the oceans around the world to create peace and stability, making the seas safe for travel and trade.
United States Marine Corps
Year Established: November 10, 1775 (Continental Marines); July 11, 1798 (current U.S. Marine Corps)
Role: Amphibious and expeditionary warfare
The United States Marine Corps was established on November 10, 1775 to provide extra support to the Continental Navy during the American Revolution. From the beginning, the Marine Corps distinguished itself from the Navy by fighting at sea and on land. The Continental Marines first amphibious battle was at Fort Nassau in the Bahamas. The first Marines were led by Captain Samuel Nicholas, who is considered the first Marine commandant.
After American independence was won, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy and the Marines as well. In the following decade, there was increasing conflict at sea and Congress voted to establish a permanent Marine Corps in May 1798. President John Adams signed the bill on July 11, 1798 and the current U.S. Marine Corps was born.
The Marine Corps is known as the country’s rapid-reaction force. They are trained to fight by sea and land, and usually are the first “boots on the ground.”
United States Coast Guard
Year Established: August 4, 1790 (U.S. Revenue Cutter Service); January 28, 1915 (current U.S. Coast Guard)
Role: Defense operations; maritime law enforcement; and search & rescue
The United States Coast Guard traces its history to August 4, 1790 when Congress authorized Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to build 10 cutters to protect the nation’s revenue. The new service, which was under the control of the Treasury Department, had many names including the Revenue-Marine, before being officially called the Revenue Cutter Service in 1863.
One of the earliest jobs of the Revenue Cutters was to suppress piracy and in 1794, the Treasury Department became responsible for maintaining the country’s lighthouses, beacons, buoys and piers.
Over the years, the Revenue Cutters were given more responsibility, including enforcing maritime laws and helping during conflicts at sea. On January 28, 1915, the Revenue Cutter Service was merged with the Life-Saving Service and the U.S. Coast Guard was formed. The Coast Guard changed again in 1939, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which was first established in 1789, was folded into the Coast Guard’s services. Since then, the Coast Guard has been responsible for maintaining America’s lighthouses. The Coast Guard’s mission is primarily within domestic or nearby international waters.
The Coast Guard’s primary responsibilities are rescues, law enforcement, drug prevention and maintaining the integrity of U.S. waterways.
United States Air Force
Year Established: August 1, 1907 (as a division of the Army); September 18, 1947 (current U.S. Air Force)
Role: Air and cyberspace warfare
The United States Air Force is the next-youngest branch of the U.S. military for obvious reasons – the first successful airplane was not built until late 1903 by the Wright brothers. The Air Force began as the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Signal Corps on August 1, 1907. Initially, the Aeronautical Division only had kite balloons, but purchased its first airplane from the Wright brothers in September 1908.
After this, the Aeronautical Division acquired more aircraft and personnel and tested its forces for the first time during World War I.
In 1926, the Aeronautical Division’s name was changed to the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the U.S. entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized the Air Corps to increase its force to 20,000 planes. The Air Corps’ name was changed again in 1941 to the Army Air Forces. In 1947, the Air Force was established as an independent branch of the military.
The USAF is the nation’s primary source of air power. Its primary mission is to fly airplanes, helicopters and satellites in both offensive and defensive activities.
U.S. Space Force
Year Established: 2019
Role: Space security, space combat power projection, space mobility and logistics, space domain awareness
The newest branch of the military, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) was signed into law in December 2019. The sixth branch of the military, the Space Force is also still in development.
The USSF is the space service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, and is currently the world’s only independent space force. Along with its sister-branch, the U.S. Air Force, the Space Force is part of the Department of the Air Force, one of the three civilian-led military departments within the Department of Defense. The Space Force is the smallest U.S. armed service. Its major spacecraft and systems include the Space Fence, Global Positioning System constellation, military satellite communications constellations, Boeing X-37B spaceplane, U.S. missile warning system, U.S. space surveillance network, and the Satellite Control Network. Under the Goldwater–Nichols Act, the Space Force is responsible for organizing, training and equipping space forces, which are then presented to the unified combatant commands, predominantly to United States Space Command, for operational employment.
The USSF traces its roots to the beginning of the Cold War, with the first Army Air Forces space programs that began in 1945. In 1954, the Western Development Division was established as the first dedicated space organization within the U.S. Armed Forces and continues to exist as the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. The first major employment of space forces culminated in the Gulf War, where they proved so critical to the U.S.-led coalition that it is sometimes referred to as the first “space war.”
In addition to the six armed services, there are two other uniformed services. They are the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps.
There are also several reserve units of the armed services. These include: the Army Reserve and Army National Guard; the Navy Reserve; the Marine Corps Reserve; the Coast Guard Reserve; and the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard.
The Army National Guard is composed of men and women who dedicate a portion of their time to serving their nation. Each state has its own Guard, as required by the Constitution; in fact, it is the only branch of the military whose existence actually is required by the Constitution.
Again, enjoy your Memorial Day holiday. But take a few moments to reflect on the men and women who died for our nation so that we may celebrate a holiday today, and all the other days of the year.
The United States and its residents owe these men and women a moment of remembrance for the ultimate sacrifice they made.